When Julie Mehretu’s works first emerged in the late 1990s – amidst a spree of brash, design-driven painting – there was an exotic reticence about their milky, matt acrylic, mazy ink drawing and hard-edged stencilling. She was systematic and deliberate when the thing to be was glossy and flash. The seemingly apocalyptic spectacles she depicted had a drab retrograde air about them, intimating a science-fiction future that seemed to have been projected out of the past, and anticipating the reinventions of early Modernist modes in the neo-formalism that arose over the following ten years .
Now, at the end of that decade, Mehretu’s art appears stranded in the period of its inception, explicable only according to the cod-philosophical dogmas that were circulating at the time. Along with Franz Ackermann, Sarah Morris, Matthew Ritchie and Corinne Wasmuht, Mehretu composed bold graphic metaphors for the uncontrollable proliferation of modern cities and the expansion of international communications networks. The wide-eyed credulousness of this art now appears naïve in its willingness to justify seductive (and, of course, very sellable) brightly coloured abstractions to supposedly evoke buzzwords of the day like ‘urbanism’ and ‘globalization’.
‘Grey Area’ is a group of seven paintings – all more than four metres wide and three metres high – begun during Mehretu’s residency at the American Academy in Berlin in 2007. It is the latest instalment in a series at the Deutsche Guggenheim in which the art is initially commissioned by Deutsche Bank. The series has fallen into a predictable pattern: an artist is selected who is established enough to present few risks, and put in a financial position to develop a body of work that enlarges and sanctifies the gestures for which they are already well known. The big becomes reliably bigger.
Mehretu ticks all of these boxes. Her already monumental canvases might even have been crying out for that further boost in scale to snugly fit the Guggenheim’s imposing walls. They make an ideal vantage for end-of-decade summaries, because so little has changed in her work. She has always deployed a consistent repertoire of techniques that define her paintings more than the socio-political references that the surrounding critical material claims they represent. We are told in the press release that this series ‘evokes the psychogeography’ of Berlin; that the city’s ‘vestiges of war’ lead on to meditations on the ‘destruction [...] currently perpetrated in the conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq.’ Substitute ‘psychogeography’ for ‘curatorial psychobabble’.
In fact, the most discernible influence of the Berlin environment on Mehretu’s standard procedures consists of the morphing of her grids of fine ink lines into fragments of architectural illustration, particularly of the façades of late-19th-century apartment houses that survived the World War II bombings. They are formulated as ideal notations – as though they’ve strayed out of an architect’s drawing – rather than representations of the contingent, battle-scarred cityscape. Plover’s Wing (2009) features more contemporary styles: streamlined corporate balconies and minimalist staircases which spiral, Escher-like, over a ground of abstract, biomorphic forms, receding to various distances as they are sanded down and pushed back by layers of semi-transparent paint. In Fragment (2008–9), girders and struts buckle as though under the sheer weight of their superimposed structures. Perspectives zoom, clash and cancel each other out in a bewildering optical dazzle. Smudgings of black paint rise like smoke out of ruins. It might be a contemporary equivalent of Piranesi’s convoluted underground prisons, except Mehretu never commits to fully articulating representational spaces. She deals in atmospheres and adumbrations. The drawing is as much a fence to block your entry as a web to draw you in. Fine sprays of black strokes in Atlantic Wall (2008–9) resemble sandstorms, rippling fields of wheat or swarms of migrating birds, but never ultimately stoop to describing any of them. Despite the architectural vignettes, the overall images show nothing more definite than swirling cataclysms of dynamism and entropy in deep illusionistic spaces.
The introduction of these vignettes compromises the integrity of the works’ abstention from directly signifying anything. Their specificity qualifies the surrounding image as airy generalization. Unlike the skeletal layouts of airports and stadiums that underlie some of Mehretu’s earlier work – and act as armatures for her process – these illustrations remain on the level of a buzz of surface incident. Without being structurally assimilated into a representational space they can only impress by overload. Everything gravitates towards an undifferentiated maximalist register. Mehretu’s solution is always to pile on information. In the political and historical terms in which curators wrap the paintings, they say yes, yes, yes and more, more, more – all rhetoric and no consequences.
First published in Issue 129