Julie Mehretu, ‘Grey Area’
Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York City. May 14- October 6
That Julie Mehretu’s first show in New York in more than five years is in the Guggenheim is fitting. Since post-Renaissance specialization split Art and Architecture the two disciplines have had an uneasy coexistence. Few contemporary artists address the subject and methods of architecture as directly as does Mehretu; in ‘Grey Area’ she grapples with her own artistic progression inside Frank Lloyd Wright’s uncompromising space.
Or inside an addendum to that space, which is perhaps appropriate, as one of her core subjects has always been the representation of the baroque topologies that constitute the contemporary city and how they evolve and change. If her recently completed Mural for the Goldman Sachs headquarters in downtown New York represents a culmination of her use of layering and riotous fragments of color, then she has used the quieter surroundings of the Guggenheim to address criticisms that her work has been static, and has not undergone a similar change to the urban environments she sources. These paintings are, if not a new animal, a different breed, offering a space of impressionist atmosphere to stand in contrast to the diagrammatic. The artist has said that after the attacks of September 11th she stopped painting explosions; residents of New York will remember the earnestness and solemnity that pervaded the city in the following days as a grey cloud hung over lower Manhattan. Restraint had become the standard, with exuberant displays suddenly out of place.
But a reading that views these new works as symbolizing a rejection of the excesses of the last few years is too simple. Just as an architect’s office may have multiple projects in various stages of completion, these paintings were produced concurrently with the Goldman Sachs commission. Mehretu’s studio is openly organized along such professional lines and she employs a team of assistants and specialists to fabricate her paintings from her sketches and computer models. Though clearly the result of a handmade process, it is equally clear that the specific hand in question is not of particular importance. Architects are pragmatically free from discussions of the “authentic gesture” that have queered the reception of painter’s productions, and the marks that populate these paintings are fairly anonymous. Whether made by Mehretu or an assistant, they read the same and there is no question of authorship. Closer to drawings than paintings, they are blueprints writ large. Though they describe ruins rather than stadiums or urban maps, the structures are built up with the mechanical lines of technical pen and straight edge. Erasures are prevalent, wiping the drawing to the ground (literally and figuratively) and frustrating connections. The surfaces are unified by flicks and wisps of ink that evoke hanging clouds. Even as the paintings are more ethereal, with mists of yellow and pink floating through paintings like Atlantic Wall, the overall palette in the gallery is what one would expect from an exhibition entitled ‘Grey Area.’
The moral compass of the show (if works of art can profess morality) also aligns well with the exhibition title. Mehretu’s draws inspiration from zones where political power has broken down and is in question. She references not only Ground Zero, but war torn cities the world over. It is not a coincidence that attacks on power are simultaneously attacks on architecture. Its logistics require the capital that power accrues, but it also makes for a visible target. Visually these territories refute Dostoevsky’s dictum of the uniqueness inherent in unhappiness; in their vacancy they all seem alike. Mehretu’s paintings have the remove of photojournalism, their horror is shown in grisaille and removed neutrality.
That the paintings were made in Berlin should not be ignored. It is a city that has had to be rebuilt after the devastation of World War II and further reconfigured after the removal of the wall. It is a first world city that has mimicked the urban change of the third world. The painting that stands apart from the others, Berliner Plätze, repeats the façades of Berlin landmarks Escher-like across different axes of the picture plane. It speaks simultaneously to the preservation of history and the inevitability of reconstruction. Large and calm, the painting intones that we are witnessing events that cycle through history. We do take comfort in their recurrence, but perhaps we can find some small solace in architects and artists being at the ready to rebuild.