MAY 14 – OCTOBER 6, 2010
In 2007, while completing a residency at the American Academy in Berlin, Julie Mehretu received the 15th commission of the Deutsche Bank and Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. This annual enterprise, which is designed to underwrite and promote works by leading contemporary artists, has previously included Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jeff Koons, Bill Viola, and Gerhard Richter, among others.
In contrast to most of her predecessors, Mehretu (b. 1970, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) was by no means a mid-career artist. Though already enjoying considerable buzz, the commission nevertheless marked a milestone in her career and she approached the project accordingly. Rather than creating a single work, such as the room-sized installation, “Memory,” by the 2009 recipient, Anish Kapoor, she envisioned a series of paintings that would be inspired by Berlin’s architecture and history. Now exhibited as “Grey Area,” this body of work reveals to what extent this endeavor challenged Mehretu to push her work into new dimensions. The experience has apparently left her a more mature artist, well equipped to undertake other monumental projects, such as her recently completed (pre-meltdown) commission for Goldman Sachs’s Manhattan headquarters.
The six large-scale paintings in “Grey Area” were completed between 2007 and 2009 in a studio Mehretu rented in Berlin. As a whole, they reveal Mehretu’s attempt to examine the city’s core, which is defined by both its historic scars and its contemporary makeup. This sincere and eclectic, even idealistic contemplation of Berlin’s essence is rendered in Mehretu’s signature style of layering multiple pictorial fields, each of which contains easily recognizable or abstracted imagery. What sets this body of work apart, however, is its desaturated palette, which suggests a neutral ground or gray zone, an area of indecision, but also of infinite possibilities. We can be in the center of a hurricane or on the road towards peace. This sense of emotional ambiguity is balanced with Mehretu’s extensive use of crisp lines and connection points, which imply poignancy and determination. It is not her aim to guide us, but to provide us with a system with which to navigate the visual complexities ahead.
The paintings reveal Mehretu’s Berlin as something of a psychological conundrum. Despite its modern buildings and state of the art infrastructure, the city still has World War II-inflicted wounds. Especially in East Berlin, where the communist government did not vigorously pursue post-war restorations, bullet holes in building walls are still common sights. While the government of the reunited Germany has made an effort to rebuild the East, it has also intentionally allowed room to commemorate the devastations of war. To most visitors, Berlin translates as a sprawling memorial to humanity’s failings, as well as to its ability to overcome a tragic history. The fact that Mehretu lived in Berlin while the U.S. war in Afghanistan was already in full force and much debated in the German media must certainly have intensified her emotional reaction, rooting her paintings in both an omnipresent history and a contemporary manifestation of the devastation of war.
It is one of Mehretu’s strongest assets that her style, though unique, evokes a spectrum of references. Her dense accumulation of information draws a connection to the associative notations of Cy Twombly’s early work, and her movement can bring Brice Marden’s curvilinear lines or even J. M. W. Turner’s seascapes to mind. In a painting entitled “Atlantic Wall” (2008-2009), the suggestion of three mountain peaks seems specifically to allude to Kandinsky, but in general, her work consistently recalls Chinese landscape painting. Mehretu absorbs, fuses, processes, and creates elaborate showcases for the interplay between the ethereal and the concrete. While “Grey Area” certainly embodies her attempt to sort out her experience in this foreign city, it also marks an emotional struggle with her own time and place. The success of this particular series resides in Mehretu’s emotional investment in the subject matter. It is a body of work that forced her to investigate the inherent aggressions and destructive forces at play in the past as well as the present. But rather than taking a pessimist’s stance, these paintings suggest that those forces are at the center of the pendulum and that the direction of its swing is ultimately controlled by us.