Julie Mehretu: Grey Area

The Ethiopian-born, Michigan-reared 40-year-old, who has eight paintings on display at the Guggenheim, creates large-scale works on important historical themes.

Guggenheim Museum, New York

Through Oct. 6

Julie Mehretu is “one of the brighter lights of contemporary American painting,” said James Gardner in The Wall Street Journal. The Ethiopian-born, Michigan-reared 40-year-old creates ambitious, large-scale works deeply rooted in research on important historical themes. The suite of eight paintings currently on display at the Guggenheim explores themes of destruction and decay: Different works involve post–World War II Berlin, post-9/11 New York City, and post-invasion Baghdad—not that you can immediately tell the subject just by glancing at Mehretu’s “hyperactive abstractions.” All these canvases trade mainly in shades of gray. Each one is “a storm cloud of washes and lines, with varied flashes of lightning rising from their irregular depths.” Still, it’s certainly plausible to identify, amid all these noisy patterns, ­suggestions of topographical maps or the earth seen from above. Mehretu clearly wants to create major “statements about the post-industrial world.”

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But what, exactly, is she trying to say? asked Ariella Budick in the Financial Times. Mehretu’s paintings actually aren’t so much abstract as simply hard to decode. Look closely and you can see shattered cities, “battered ramparts,” and tumbled-down masonry. Her “meditations on war, industry, and capital possess the calligraphic elegance of Chinese scroll painting.” But considering their subject is violence, these paintings seem surprisingly complacent. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Mehretu’s intellectual ambitions exceed her courage as an artist: “A tepid artist with a hot reputation,” Mehretu created these works on commission from Deutsche Bank. So it’s no surprise that she’s created pleasant, unchallenging decorations fit for a corporate office. “If Mehretu’s work resonates with bankers, it’s surely because she has found a visual expression for complex derivatives—intricate structures that look attractive but that nobody can fully understand.”

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