Mehretu’s renowned work depicts the big picture

The large crowd in Lawrence Hall mirrored in scale the work of Julie Mehretu, winner of the MacArthur Fellow “genius grant” in 2005. The artist delivered a lecture this past Thursday in conjunction with “Julie Mehretu: City Sitings,” an exhibition of her large-scale, abstract paintings on view at the Williams College Museum of Art through July 27. Conducting herself with a composed but bubbling energy, Mehretu discussed themes of globalization, urbanization, individualism and utopia that surface in her festively colored and densely layered paintings that “reinvigorate painting as a contemporary art form,” according to Chika Okeke-Agulu, Clark visiting professor of art. Born in Ethiopia, raised in Michigan, educated in Senegal and Rhode Island and currently living in New York, Mehretu is able to bring a truly global array of visual vocabularies to her work, and creates art of the post-colonial, globalized present moment.

Mehretu is a wildly talented artist, and has an extremely engaging and charming presence in person. She begins ideas in a frenetic explosion that slowly calms and yields to sense. Her manner of speaking and presence were akin to her high-velocity paintings, which from afar spin in dizzying motion to yield delicate, detailed mark-making on closer inspection.

This relationship between the big picture and the little picture recurs repeatedly in Mehretu’s pieces. Her work originates in the endeavor of “isolating the mark,” she explained. The expressive power of an individual mark is of central importance to Mehretu and bears greatly on her view of the individual and community – her desire for the individual to have agency. The single mark cannot operate without a context, she explained, and yet the context cannot exist without the series of individual marks. In this way, Mehretu regards her marks in highly political terms. “In mass these marks could somehow challenge that space – shift it,” she said.

To provide a context for her marks, Mehretu enmeshes the basal layers of her paintings with finely detailed architectural drawings. In her series of Stadia paintings, Mehretu explores the socio-historical connotations of the stadium, an enormous public space in which the ordered masses engrossed in a spectacle can rapidly be moved to chaos and riot. In these festive yet frenetic paintings, brightly pigmented and irregularly shaped patches of acrylic silica paint take on the smooth, luminous quality of an adhesive sticker, punctuating a dense mess of architectural drawings done in pencil and ink with a confused fanfare of banners, flags and pride. Dating back to the coliseum of the Roman Empire, the stadium, for Mehretu, is an essential locus of mass interaction in an urban setting.

Architecture also provides an essential context to her work through the Cartesian grid and the suggestion of Renaissance perspective. Mehretu compared the use and intent of architectural perspective in her paintings to Raphael’s famous Italian Renaissance painting, School of Athens and also mentioned her debt to Caravaggio’s great sense of dramatic contrast.

Mehretu spoke frankly about her personal involvement in her work. “Socialist utopian ideas haunt me and my work,” she said, explaining that she is the daughter of “Africanist and Ethiopian utopianists” and grew up in the rapid decolonization of the 1970s. Mehretu spoke at times with a charming self-deprecation, referring to her artistic process as “abstract and absurd,” and, in explaining her intent to make sense of her surroundings admitted, said, “I’m baffled, too.”

Mehretu was engaging and concise and presented an interesting account of the evolution of her artistic work to suit her interest in and concern for global politics, architecture and the city. Like a true artist, she spoke for only 30 minutes about her work, leaving the busy, festive, epic murals to speak for themselves.