There’s something curious, and strangely appropriate, about the way LACMA staged its mid-career retrospective of Julie Mehretu’s paintings and drawings. The bulk of the exhibition, located on the third floor of LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) building, is chronological and comprehensive. Here, the show methodically works its way through the stations of Mehretu’s career, from the idiosyncratic ink drawings she produced as an MFA student, to the monumental photo-based abstractions that fill the exhibit’s final galleries.
It’s possible, though, to sense the occasional gap in this presentation: places where a promising idea will vanish without being fully realized, changes in direction that occur suddenly, without transition. This is because some of the show’s most important canvases aren’t located on the third floor at all. Instead, they’re tucked away in a much smaller gallery on the west side of BCAM’s ground floor — about as far from the show’s main exhibition space as you can get without leaving the building. Visitors who enter the exhibition, as I did, by way of BCAM’s outdoor escalator will only see this second part of the show on their way out. (It came as a surprise to me, as I’m sure it will to many others.) In this new space, the rigid structure of the exhibition’s third floor gives way to something much more unruly. Mehretu’s oeuvres, it seems, has broken out of the (already very spacious) confines of BCAM’s third floor galleries, determined to seep, unpredictably, into other parts of the museum.
This presentation is unconventional, and it will probably frustrate the not-insignificant percentage of visitors who are bound to leave LACMA without seeing the whole retrospective. It also, however, captures something essential about the spirit of Mehretu’s work. Mehretu is interested in what happens when ordering principles — be they political, architectural, or conceptual in nature — fail to structure and contain the world in the ways we might expect. As she put it in an interview with the exhibition’s co-curator, Christine Kim, her pictures give form to the residue of “complete chaos, violence, and disorder” that persists in even the most rigidly organized spaces. For this reason, visions of stadiums, public squares, airports, and coliseums pervade Mehretu’s paintings. More often than not, these spaces seem to be rendered on the brink of collapse, a far cry from their original status as paradigms of organization and efficiency.
In Stadia II (2004), one of the show’s standout works, the outline of a stadium frames a remarkable spectacle of entropy. Gestural marks of black India ink, linear vectors of bright acrylic, and planar forms that resemble national flags and corporate logos whip, cyclone-like, around the center of the composition, their trajectories alternatively describing and defying the contours of the arena in which they’re enclosed. For the moment, the stadium remains standing, its ordering presence locked in combat with the anarchic forces inside.
In other pictures, though, we see what happens when this uneasy equilibrium breaks down. Dispersion (2002), for instance, depicts an equally dizzying storm of wisps and vectors in the moment of its triumph over structure. No longer bound by an organizing force, these individual elements race off — riotously, in every possible direction — toward the edge of the canvas, leaving a faint, jumbled layer of architectural forms in their wake.
Visually compelling stuff, to be sure. Things become more controversial, though, when we try to pin down more concrete meanings in Mehretu’s paintings. If you listen closely, you might notice the occasional groan and grumble echoing through the galleries of the exhibit. (I certainly have, especially during my shifts — full disclosure — at LACMA’s bookstore, where the Mehretu show seems to provoke unusually strong reactions from customers.) This frustration is almost always directed at the exhibition’s wall texts, rather than the paintings themselves. According to the introductory blurb, Mehretu’s work addresses “the most immediate conditions of our contemporary moment, including migration, revolution, climate change, global capitalism, and technology.” Some see this as a gross overstatement. Mehretu’s paintings, they protest, are basically non-objective abstractions, investigations in line, color, and form. As such, they either lack socio-political content altogether, or present these themes so cryptically as to render them effectively absent. (One visitor complained to me: “I tried to find climate change, tried for a long time. Where is it? Show me the climate change!”) When pressed, some skeptics might acknowledge the — at least socially-adjacent — motifs of structure and entropy in Mehretu’s work, but even these can be reframed as purely formal concerns. Why, many will ask, do the curators insist on ruining perfectly nice pictures by talking politics?
These reactions are understandable. As the LACMA retrospective makes clear, Mehretu’s practice begins and ends with the abstract mark, by turns glyphic and gestural, schematic and painterly. Mehretu often tells a story about an assignment she received as an MFA student at the Rhode Island School of Design. “She was encouraged,” Christine Kim writes in the exhibition catalog, “to dissect her paintings by making hundreds of ink drawings,” each consisting of a single gestural mark. There are traces of this process in some of the earliest and most illuminating works in the show: notebook-sized “indexes” of marks arranged, with mathematical rigor, on a Cartesian grid. Taken together, these pages form a kind of lexicon, an inventory of the figures that appear in Mehretu’s paintings from the period. However non-referential these “characters,” as Mehretu suggestively calls them, might appear, they carried a social valence from the start. In early paintings like Untitled (Yellow with Ellipses) (1998), a map-like composition organized around an X-Y axis, Mehretu’s tiny marks model the most elementary and universal forms of sociality: forging alliances, doing battle with other groups, migrating together across the landscape, and, sometimes, setting out erratically on their own.
These blips and swirls possess an agency, a spontaneity, that Mehretu associates with the subversive power of the drawn gesture. In 2002, Mehretu noted that she found herself “more and more interested in the idea that drawing can be an activist gesture. That drawing — as an informed, intuitive process, a process that is representative of individual agency and culture, a very personal process — offers something radical.” In some ways, Mehretu’s remarks echo Meyer Shapiro’s argument, in “The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art” (1957), that gestural abstraction can act as a form of resistance to the deadening regimentation of life under industrial capitalism. For Shapiro, the sweeping gestures in a Pollock or de Kooning express drives and impulses that originate deep in the artist’s psyche, beyond the reach of the socio-political forces that structure so much of modern life. To be sure, there’s plenty of this kind of drawing in Mehretu’s work. The chaotic wisps of black ink almost beg to be read psychologically, as expressions of an id that wants to tear all those stadiums and airports (inventions of the superego, surely) down. Yet there’s a two-sidedness to Mehretu’s understanding of drawing and gesture, an ambiguity that distinguishes her approach from that of the Abstract Expressionists. In Mehretu’s pictures, drawing both resists and reveals the structures of social and economic life — structures that are inscribed, however cryptically, in even the most apparently spontaneous or hermetic works of art. For Mehretu, drawing provides a means of decoding these traces, of excavating and reconstructing the unfathomably large historical forces that have shaped her identity.
It’s helpful, when looking at Mehretu’s work, to know something about the artist’s early life. Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1970, to an American mother and an Ethiopian father. Her family was forced to flee the country in 1977, the year that Mengistu Haile Mariam’s dictatorial Derg regime began to violently repress its ideological adversaries. They eventually settled in East Lansing, Michigan, where Mehretu’s father found work teaching economic geography at Michigan State University.
This narrative suggests two themes that would preoccupy Mehretu throughout her career: the dynamics of migration, and the fate of utopian liberation movements (especially those that swept the African continent in the 1960s and 1970s). It was impossible for these motifs to enter Mehretu’s practice with any force, however, until she found a way to square her commitment to abstract painting with her desire to make work that contained meaningful socio-political content.
A breakthrough came in the early 2000s, when Mehretu began to incorporate architectural line drawings into her compositions. Mehretu generally sourced these drawings from real structures and projects; after turning the drawings into transparencies, she (and, later, her studio assistants) would project and trace them onto her canvases. The drawings possess an aura of historicity, laden as they are with the associations of actual places and events. Nevertheless, they remain abstractions, always gesturing towards, rather than literally representing, a subject matter. Typically located in the deepest strata of these multi-layered canvases, the architectural drawings construct a terrain for Mehretu’s marks to inhabit — a space simultaneously ethereal and historical, abstract and concrete.
The possibilities opened up by this approach are already apparent in an early painting like Babel Unleashed (2001), where the faintest suggestion of an airport terminal is enough to lend new meanings to the cacophony of marks and vectors that clash in the picture’s upper layers. Against this backdrop, Mehretu’s characters start to look like migrants in transit, acting out some grand drama of globalization and displacement. There’s a relationship, in these paintings, between the abstractness of Mehretu’s approach and the nature of the (implied) subject matter. So many of the forces that govern our present reality, from globalization and mass migration to finance capitalism and climate change, seem to be ungraspable; our imaginative faculties are frustrated by their decentralization, their scope and complexity. This line of thinking leads to a conclusion that flies in the face of our received notions about the relationship between abstraction and realism: that, for all of their abstractness, there is a kind of mimesis at work in Mehretu’s paintings. The pictures are abstract because the world is, too.
One of the most arresting paintings of this type is located in that strange, lonely room on the museum’s first floor. Here, Mehretu sutures the personal to the historical, the abstract to the worldly, with the conviction of an artist working at the height of her powers. The monumental painting, titled Transcending: The New International (2003), is about liberation, and the prospect of liberation gone wrong. It’s one of the show’s most seductive canvases. There’s the turmoil we’ve come to expect, conveyed, yet again, by Mehretu’s energetic gestures and swarms of characters, all rendered in black ink and whipped up into an even stronger storm than usual. (I’m sure Transcending would be unbearably loud, if it could speak.) The effect is softened, however, by Mehretu’s strikingly restrained palette — the whole thing is rendered in grayscale, a far cry from the Benjamin Moore colors that race across her other paintings from the period — and the marked lyricism of her brushstrokes.
There’s an elegiac quality to Transcending; one senses that a tragedy has occurred, but at a remove, as something to be mourned rather than suffered. The nature of this catastrophe can be discerned, of course, in the faint architectural forms that lie like ruins beneath the marks on the painting’s surface. The exhibition catalog tells us that there are at least three distinct layers of these line drawings: aerial-view plans of Addis Ababa and neighboring African capitals, renderings of pre-independence architecture from the same cities, and, finally, sketches of plazas and monuments constructed in the wake of independence. Transcending, we come to realize, is a history painting, executed on a scale that spans continents and decades. Thrown into relief, all those violent ink gestures begin to evoke the irrepressible utopian impulses that drive liberation movements; but also, and more darkly, the tendency of such movements to devolve into their repressive opposites, a process Mehretu’s family had witnessed firsthand.
Walk far enough into the exhibition, and all these architectural drawings begin to disappear. In a series of beautifully executed gray paintings from the early 2010s, Mehretu’s marks retreat from the world once again, taking refuge in an opaque space that resists the socio-historical readings invited by her earlier work. These paintings have a transitional quality to them; in their deliberate obscurity, Mehretu finds the breathing room she needs to rethink her artistic practice. Somewhere in this illegible field, there are ideas gestating, relationships being renegotiated.
This move, far from being a peripheral blip, gets at something essential about the role of abstraction in Mehretu’s work. In a video that plays in the retrospective’s first-floor galleries, Mehretu remarks, “Abstraction allows me to access this space of flux, fluidity, and opacity. There’s a lot of freedom in that space.” Mark Bradford, another artist who uses abstract painting to address themes of identity and oppression, is perhaps more direct: “I got to [art] school, and people started asking me: ‘What does it feel like to be gay? What does it feel like to be Black?’ … There were so many of these things, these really narrow things. And I escaped into abstraction to make a space where I could play … where I [could] figure things out.” Like Bradford, Mehretu identifies as a queer person of color; and like Bradford, she seems to conceive of abstraction as a kind of tactical withdrawal, a way of eluding the scrutiny of a social order that rigidly categorizes and frequently brutalizes Black and queer bodies. A tactical retreat, because Mehretu never leaves the brutal facts of the world behind altogether; her aim, rather, is to render them in a new light. When the pathologies engendered by our current social order — of racism, of war, of climate crisis — are submerged in Mehretu’s “fluid, opaque” space, they start to look like one contingent set of possibilities among many, rather than intractable conditions of human life. Abstraction, then, is the utopian element of Mehretu’s practice. Its workings loosen the grip of the factual, allowing us to glimpse, if only for a moment, a future that is fundamentally different from our present.
The last group of paintings in the retrospective, produced over the past five years, are “abstract” in precisely this sense. These works retain the illegibility of the gray paintings that came before them; look as closely as you want, and you won’t find any architectural forms to ground the pictures in the external world. The gestural marks of black ink are still here, spooling out into the depths of the paintings like tangled thread. Floating among these marks are all manner of jagged and blurred forms, created through a complex process of screen printing, masking, and erasure. More important than any of these additions, though, is a change in Mehretu’s practice that’s mostly imperceptible. The wall texts tell us that all of these paintings are based on photographs, which Mehretu blurs in Photoshop, prints onto the canvases, and overpaints. Although the details of the images are obliterated by this process, their formal structure acts as a kind of template — if only a loose one — for Mehretu’s abstract compositions.
Mehretu’s choice of photographs is telling. The image underlying Haka (and Riot) (2019), a monumental diptych hung in the center of the retrospective’s final room, depicts the interior of a detention facility at the US-Mexico border, where US agents locked children in cages and separated them from their families. Other paintings are based on photographs of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the infamous 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the destruction wrought by the 2017 wildfires in Northern California. Though the subject matter (if one can even call it that) of these works occasionally seems unfocused – lapsing into a kind of arbitrary list of atrocities and disasters in the Trump era — the power of Mehretu’s process is clear. If architectural drawings once did the work of tying Mehretu’s abstract pictures to worldly concerns, this task is now carried out, even more obliquely, by the blurred photographs. The resulting paintings are thoroughly “haunted,” as Mehretu herself has said, by the spaces and events depicted in their photographic sources, a haunting that is all the more complete for Mehretu’s refusal to actually show us the horrors that lurk behind her curtain of abstraction. Haunted, but not completely determined. In Mehretu’s abstract space, the paintings’ seemingly cut-and-dry source material is transformed into something far less definite. These pictures are riven with slippages and fissures, zones of possibility through which Mehretu’s black marks move freely, in a state of free play. Perhaps, the viewer suspects, similar fissures exist in the paintings’ real-world antecedents: sites where interventions might be staged, boundaries might be traversed, and, ultimately, the seeds of a more egalitarian society might be planted.
Image above: Transcending (The New International) by Julie Mehretu, Walker Art Center.