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In Mehretu's work, the space of the canvas is a site of convergence, a sublime accumulation of vectors, blueprints, logos, iconography and ink markings—a transparent archeology of surfaces that echo and refer back to each other.

Julie Mehretu's worlds within worlds 

Containing multitudes

click to enlarge Julie Mehretu's "Immanence" (2004), ink and acrylic on canvas. 72 in. by 96 in. - PHOTO BY ERMA ESTWICK
  • Photo by Erma Estwick
  • Julie Mehretu's "Immanence" (2004), ink and acrylic on canvas. 72 in. by 96 in.

Julie Mehretu: City Sitings
North Carolina Museum of Art
Through Nov. 30

For those of us who are still suffering from post-traumatic flashbacks of the opening ceremonies in Beijing this summer, a possible catharsis might be found in City Sitings at the N.C. Museum of Art.

The catharsis comes in the form of a triptych composed of three staggeringly complex and engulfing works entitled "Stadia I, II and III." These huge canvases explode with stylized renderings of stadium architecture and overlays of international emblems, flags and corporate logos. The piece pulses with color in a brilliant antagonism, a massive diagram that lays bare the psycho-visio conquest for ideological and corporate brand loyalty on a global scale. Here the sports metaphor is milked for every possible association—war, power, competition, advertising, fascism, fanaticism, pageantry, media and on and on.

By driving us to the very limits of our capacity for image/ meaning absorption, this piece explains why corporate advertisers think of our visual field as real estate. This piece tells us that, within the confines of three monster canvases, we are always inhabiting multiple realms that include visual space, cognitive space, social space, corporate space and political space. The feeling in this and many of the artworks on display in City Sitings is that the paintings are conceptual machines, and they'll continue churning out ideas and constructing new meanings after the lights go out and the museum closes for the night. The artist is Julie Mehretu, and "Stadia I, II and III" does something few single works of art can do—it surges with the impossibility of grasping the world and in so doing offers us a moment in which to try. Let the games begin.

Cartography is at the conceptual center of Mehretu's project. Her Ethiopian father, Assefa Mehretu, is a cultural geographer, who initially focused his studies on his native Africa and later turned his critical inquiry toward the U.S. when the family moved to Lansing, Mich. Mehretu's influence on his daughter shines through her work in its manifold themes of global migration, societal upheaval, shifting economies and manifestations of corporate, political and military power, seen through the organizing principal of mapping systems.

Mehretu herself was born and lived in Ethiopia before moving to the U.S., and this fact of her life seems have flipped something on inside her like a switch. The theme of displacement and relocation recurs in much of Mehretu's work. Consider "Palimpsest (old gods)" (2006), in which she imposes the entire set of illustrations from a book of architectural history in the space of a single canvas, only to erase much of it by sanding it down. This almost compulsive adherence to concept and the capacity to load a single work with vast layers of information is a signature quality of Mehretu's talent. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Mehretu was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (affectionately known as a "genius" grant) in 2005.

In Mehretu's work, the space of the canvas is a site of convergence, a sublime accumulation of vectors, blueprints, logos, iconography and ink markings—a transparent archeology of surfaces that echo and refer back to each other. Mehretu integrates a multiplicity of references, images and meanings in works so dense they often feel like the product of a collective, rather than an individual. Case in point is a work such as "Drift of Light" (2007), an expanse in which geometric shapes float among a density of crosshatchings and scrawls, and technical architectural drawings reverberate in contrast to an underlying grid of white lines. Mehretu's multiplicity of modalities undermines our grasp of the idea of authorship.

click to enlarge Julie Mehretu's "Charioteer" (2007), ink and acrylic on linen. 60 in. by 84 in. - PHOTO BY STEVEN GERLICH
  • Photo by Steven Gerlich
  • Julie Mehretu's "Charioteer" (2007), ink and acrylic on linen. 60 in. by 84 in.

Mehretu says of her work, "My aim is to have a picture that appears one way from a distance—almost like a cosmology, city or universe from afar—but then when you approach the work, the overall image shatters into numerous other pictures, stories and events." Upon first viewing, from five or 10 feet away, we encounter the feeling of a totality, a shimmering force of lines, gestures and particulate matter, a coherent chaos. What's extraordinary is that when we move nearer to the surface of the work, we encounter an onslaught of fresh detail, of hand-inked lines and scratches, gestural marks and delineations, logos, structural referents and visual puns. Mehretu inhabits her own work like a citizen of an imaginary city, role-playing alternately as urban planner, itinerant vandal, mercenary soldier and intellectual theorist, commenting on the myriad complexities of socio-political space. Mehretu's paintings have been described as virtual worlds, and, indeed, her immersive work shares some fascinating allegiances with such virtual spaces as Second Life, SimCity or World of Warcraft.

Mehretu fits into a breed of hybrid practitioners, creative visionaries who transcend rigid categorization. Her work brings to mind projects developed by The Center for Land Use Interpretation (Los Angeles) or Storefront for Art and Architecture (New York). Her capacity for seemingly infinite complexity aligns her with maniac/ genius Paul Lafolley and the epic diagrammatic paintings he creates in his Boston Visionary Cell. Mehretu's painterly values connect her readily with recent work by artists like Mark Bradford and Mario Marzan as well as the multidimensional geometries of Ronald Davis in the 1970s. More off-the-wall associations I make with Mehretu's work include the oddball architectural installations of Phoebe Washburn, the ever-expanding universe of design guru Bruce Mau, and the scientific cross-disciplinary breakthroughs of Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering at Duke and author of Constructal Theory.

Finally, in a lovely bit of synchronicity, I should mention that, coincidentally, this fall there will be a two-month series of presentations and events under the auspices of a local mapping collective called Counter Cartographies. This confluence of events in time and space holds the potential for some heady aesthetic and intellectual cross-pollinating. After you visit City Sitings at NCMA, check the mapping collective's Web site at www.countercartographies.org for a list of events and to find out how you can become more involved in re-imagining the worlds around you.

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