Marian Goodman | May 11 – June 22, 2013
When the revolution comes, what will it look like? The paintings in Liminal Squared, Julie Mehretu’s first solo show at Marian Goodman, refuse to settle either formally or conceptually, evoking the flux of revolution. Although executed in New York, the work in the exhibition, which includes oil and acrylic paintings as well as a series of prints, addresses issues beyond the borders of time and place, taking up the cultural eruptions of the recent past. From Cairo, Tahrir Square, and the Arab Spring, to office analytics and the productivity of the global economy, Mehretu’s elegant paintings meditate on diverse sites of conflict by flickering in their own formal confrontations.
Mehretu’s paintings continue to exploit the edge, whether between systems of representation, distinct geopolitical spaces or art worlds. They have for several years hovered productively in these in-between spaces, between abstraction and figuration, between the sociopolitical and the formal, and between the art market and the museum. The works of Liminal Squared are no exception. Exemplified by the show’s largest work, the three-panel “Beloved (Cairo)”(2013), they are stunning, monumental orchestrations of Mehretu’s hybrid vocabulary. A mélange of architectural quotations, aerial fragments of the local, and solid flat blocks of color and line that suggest grander geopolitical maps or grandiose charts, weave through her signature inky handiwork frustrating the binary discourses that segregate abstraction from figuration, art from design, east from west, and past from present. Mehretu’s work continues to propose socio-political complexity within beautiful, seductive forms. Her paintings take on the serious ambition, scale and vocabularies of AbEx even as they inherit the modernist paradox of utopia-construction; speculative fictions are spun out of the rubble of conflicts past.
Possibly mindful of what was gained through restraint in her Grey Area series, an experiment in personal process seems to continue here too. Architectural cues are ambandoned in smaller paintings, like “Untitled” (2013), that rely solely on Mehretu’s gestural marks. These seem more like studies than finished works. More promisingly, “Invisible Sun (algorithm)”(2012) works up from a dark, rather than a white ground, a mode that acknowledges the dystopian potential of Mehretu’s stormy fugues.
The suite of five etchings on view, “Algorithms, Apparitions and Translations” (2013) are less mannered and perfected than previous works in this medium. They are pared down to raw lines and forms that evoke the hand of Paul Klee. It’s good to see Mehretu striking out from her flagship brand, and yet, the most stirring moments in this show still rely on her orchestrations of massive canvases.
These works also open up a more expressive, romantic relationship to color. Her palette offers more than the rigidity of signification it has subscribed to before. In works like “Fever Graph (algorithm for serendipity)” (2013) and “Insile” (2013) (a work very much in dialogue with Sigmar Polke) and “Co-Evolution of the Futurhyth Machine (after Kodwo Eshun)” (2013), color becomes a vehicle for emotions strange, jubilant and foreboding.
Featured last summer at Documenta (13), and In Praise of Doubt at Francois Pinault’s Punta della Dogana in Venice (2011), Mehretu’s work is fashionable indeed, tempting one to examine these works for marketable trends. A kind of snakeskin pattern—that python so in last year—creeps into Mehretu’s vocabulary of ink marks just as her flat geometric forms seem to be flirting at times with the neon pastels that refuse to leave the department store. Python too for its digital connotations as a programming language, as these works are very much about architecture in the age of AutoCAD, history paintings rendered on monumental monitors. Zoomed in and frozen, these are the overhead projections and glitches of the drafting table digitized. Indeed, to be fashionable is often not to be frivolous, but conversely, to be somehow ineffably necessary. Increasingly present in contemporary painting, the fashionable digital look demands our attention, as does Mehretu, one of its pioneers. Fashion, Walter Benjamin would remind us, is as excellent an example as any of revolution and class struggle, of the conflict between people, space, time, and history itself. Mehretu’s paintings seem sympathetic to this, mindful of doing what they can to be both politically and aesthetically progressive.
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ContributorGrant Klarich Johnson
Grant Klarich Johnson is a critic and curator based in New York, and a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Southern California.