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Meet the Season 5 Artist: Julie Mehretu

The above video is excerpted from the Season 5 episode Systems, premiering on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 10pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Systems features four artists — John Baldessari, Kimsooja, Allan McCollum, and Julie Mehretu — who invent new grammars and logics, finding comfort in some systems while rebelling against others in today’s supercharged, information-based society.

Who is Julie Mehretu and what does she have to say about systems?

Julie Mehretu was born in 1970 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; she lives and works in New York. Mehretu’s paintings and drawings refer to elements of mapping and architecture, achieving a calligraphic complexity that resembles turbulent atmospheres and dense social networks. Architectural renderings and aerial views of urban grids enter the work as fragments, losing their real-world specificity and challenging narrow geographic and cultural readings. The paintings’ wax-like surfaces—built up over weeks and months in thin translucent layers—have a luminous warmth and spatial depth, with formal qualities of light and space made all the more complex by Mehretu’s delicate depictions of fire, explosions, and perspectives in both two and three dimensions. Her works engage the history of nonobjective art—from Constructivism to Futurism—posing contemporary questions about the relationship between utopian impulses and abstraction.

On the subject of systems in art, Mehretu talks about the difference between rational and organic methods of working (in the forthcoming Season 5 book):

The earlier, more analytic impulse was to use very rational but kind of absurd techniques or tendencies—mapping, charting, and architecture—to try and make sense of who I was in my time and space and political environment. But there’s only so much truth to a theoretical understanding of something. The action or behavior—or what happens organically and intuitively, rationally and spiritually, or majestically—in a world is a very different thing than what can happen in our effort to understand it. So there was more of an impulse to use those approaches, trying to make sense of these two sides of myself in the earlier work. And I developed a whole language and body of work that evolved from that investigation. But the thing that kept it all together and that keeps me going is the painting—making the pictures—and drawing. In getting lost in doing that, language is invented. And that shows you something you never thought you would know about yourself or understand.

What happens in Mehretu’s segment in Systems this October?

“Trying to figure out who I am and my work is trying to understand systems,” says Julie Mehretu, shown working with her assistants in Berlin on seven large canvases for a show at Deutsche Guggenheim (Fall 2009). “The thing that keeps me going is the painting,” she says, “and in getting lost in doing that a language is invented.”Mehretu’s abstract compositions reference modernist architecture, Google Maps, Coliseum-like buildings like those found in Stadia II (2004), and defaced structures—like the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan—which became the inspiration for Vanescere (2007).

The segment captures the artist at a moment of upheaval, both in her life and in current events, working on the biggest project of her young career: a 21 by 85 foot long mural commissioned by a major financial institution in Lower Manhattan, to be completed during the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression. Characterizing the task before her as “absurd,” she wonders “can you actually make a picture…of the history of capitalist development,” from the early maps of the Silk Road to the evolution of the marketplace as it exists today?

Julie Mehretu. "Stadia II," 2004. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 108 x 144 inches. Collection of Carnegie Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, Gift of Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and Nicolas Rohatyn and A.W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund. Photo by Richard Stoner, © Julie Mehretu, courtesy the artist and The Project, New York.

What else has Mehretu done?

Mehretu studied at University Cheik Anta Diop, Dakar (1990-91), earning a BA from Kalamazoo College, Michigan (1992), and an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design, Providence (1997). She was a resident of the CORE Program, Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1997-98) and the AIR Program at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2001). Among Mehretu’s awards are the Berlin Prize (2007), from the American Academy in Berlin; a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award (2005); and the American Art Award from the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2005). Her work has appeared in major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2007); Detroit Institute of Arts (2006); Walker Art Museum, Minneapolis (2003); and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (2003), among others. Mehretu has participated in the Sydney Biennale (2006); Carnegie International (2004); Bienal de São Paulo (2004); Whitney Biennial (2004); and the Istanbul Biennial (2003).

Where can I see more of Mehretu’s work between now and the Art21 premiere this October?

Julie Mehretu is represented by The Project in New York. Her work is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as part of the exhibition Between Art and Life: The Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Collection (through January 3, 2010) and at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego as part of the exhibition Automatic Cities: The Architectural Imaginary in Contemporary Art (September 26, 2009 through January 31, 2010). An exhibition of prints is being mounted by the Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis this fall. Works filmed in-progress in Mehretu’s segment premiere at Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin (October 17, 2009 through January 10, 2010).

What’s your take on Mehretu’s inclusion in Season 5?

Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below!

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