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Mehretu’s Revolutions on Canvas

06/17/2013

INSILE (2013) alludes to Saddam Hussein’s Believers’ Palace in Baghdad, which was destroyed by US bombs in 2003. | photo by Tom Powell

Internationally known painter and MacArthur Award winner Julie Mehretu MFA 97 PT/PR is currently showing her work in two solo exhibitions on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Her New York rep, the Marian Goodman Gallery, is presenting Liminal Squared through June 22, while in London White Cube is hosting a show of the same name through July 7.

Both exhibitions include paintings that Mehretu completed for Documenta(13) – a popular multimedia show held in Kassel, Germany and Kabul, Afghanistan in 2012 ­– along with new work created in response to the Arab Spring and continuing protests and revolution across the world stage. Mehretu says that the two simultaneous shows “echo one another but present different moments in time” and that preparing for them allowed her to consider their psycho-geographic link and the historical complexity inherent in crossing the Atlantic.

In the artist’s own words, her work continues to explore “the multifaceted layers of place, space and time that impact the formation of personal and communal identity” and tries to make sense of world events. Mehretu was born in Ethiopia and raised there until civil war forced her family to immigrate to the US in 1977, and she is particularly interested in the massive political uprisings that have swept across Africa in recent years. Speaking of that rift in her past, she says, “it’s an important part of my own personal narrative” and an experience that “illuminates my interest in these issues.”  

Although her layered, frenetic paintings reference buildings and public plazas around the world, Mehretu has not physically visited all of the cities she paints. “I’ve never been to Baghdad, Damascus, Kabul . . . to many places that are part of my paintings,” she says. “But they are part of our shared social narrative. The way we understand these places is through the media, especially when [the US is] engaged in conflict – they are incredibly mediated images. And that interests me.”

Mehretu found her artistic voice – her “language of making” – while studying at RISD. She fondly recalls her first tour on campus with Pakistani-born artist and then grad student Shahzia Sikander MFA 95 PT/PR, who is now equally well known in international art circles. She has also maintained her connections with RISD professors who made an incredible impact on her life’s work, including Michael Young, Dennis Congdon 75 PT, Duane Slick and Holly Hughes. “My years at RISD still inform the work I do,” she says, which is one reason she makes a point of returning to speak to students from time to time.

In preparing for the current White Cube exhibition, Mehretu worked with British architect David Adjaye to create a specific environment for her massive paintings – one that would allow viewers to “experience them at a different pace than at Kassel, to spend time with the paintings.”

Mehretu maintains that viewers do not need a political background to understand her work. “I think architecture reflects the machinations of politics,” she explains, “and that’s why I am interested in it as a metaphor for those institutions. I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space, but about spaces of power, about ideas of power.”

She also notes that “one of the reasons I work within the language of abstraction is because I’m not asserting a particular position. My deep desire is to make these paintings, to bring up complex emotional experiences. Viewers bring their own personal viewpoints [to interpreting them].”

–Simone Solondz

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tags: alumni, graduate, global, Painting, Printmaking

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RISD has a long history of offering Saturday and after-school classes for children and teens, as this photo from c. 1910 confirms.