Seven Acts of Mercy, 2004
Ink and synthetic polymer on canvas, 114 x 252 inches
Seven Acts of Mercy, 2004 (Detail)
Looking Back to a Bright New Future 2003
ink and acrylic on canvas, 95 x 119 inches
ink, graphite, color pencil on paper, 25 3/4 x 40 inches
Graphite & watercolor on paper, 26 x 40 inches
Ink and graphite on paper, 26 x 40 inches
Julie Mehretu: Seven Acts of Mercy
MARCH 2005 - MARCH 2006
The Sanctity of Action
Essay by Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson
Bursting with the kind of energy that has historically mobilized groups of agitated youth to push a revolutionary social agenda, Julie Mehretu's dynamic paintings and drawings evoke punk rock, propagandistic urban graffiti, the Free Speech Movement, and the divine hand of God. The desire to effect profound social change is, of course, not limited to youth: Rosa Parks was 42 years old when she refused to take a seat at the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, and the first two women to marry in San Francisco in February 2004 were 81 and 79 years old. As curator Douglas Fogle wrote, "History is made by active subjects, both in our world and in [Mehretu's] works."1 Inspired by subversive, antiestablishment impulses, the conceptual framework of Mehretu's paintings is the relationship between the individual and the community, the whole.2 The artist says that the myriad marks in her work "signify characters that socialize."3 Her "private utopian fighters" maintain a sense of hope as they labor along within complex exterior sets and work to promote an ambiguous change.4
While much has been made of Mehretu's global background, the significant element is her birth in Ethiopia in 1970, a time when the country was trying to create a utopian society. Born into this context of resistance, she says she grew up watching the trials and tribulations involved in passionately pursuing a dream. Her belief in the possibility of change remains strong, as is evidenced by the title of a signature painting, Manifestation. "Manifestation" is defined here as a culminating event with connotations of riot and protest. Seven Acts of Mercy (2004), the major painting featured here, takes its title from a work of the same name painted by Caravaggio in 1607. The result of riot, the lack of mercy, and the need for protest have incredible relevance in our post-Katrina time. The seven acts are: 1) burying the dead, 2) visiting prisoners, 3) feeding the hungry, 4) dressing the naked, 5) offering hospitality to pilgrims, 6) relieving the thirsty, and 7) caring for the sick. While of course unable to forecast the recent tragedy, pictured in the painting are thousands of ink-drawn marks that signify bursts of cultural resistance amid the ebb and flow of systems and organic orders. The painting can be read as a reaction against the bureaucratic systems of inaction while simultaneously posing questions of cause and effect, fate and destiny, chance and divine intervention.
Mehretu's marks have their own identities, the artist says; like characters in a fantastical narrative, or a collective attempt at social change, they evolve and interact with each other. Certain marks are aggressors, some are constructors, while still others represent the "Everybody." The expressive, small ink-drawn gestures that rest upon the layers of accumulated resin can be seen as little fists raised in the air or as gathered pilgrims bent over in prayer. The abstract narratives combine geometric vectors of objects in motion, graphic brushfires, cartoon explosions, hatch marks, sickle shapes, and dots.5 Mehretu incorporates a cartographic impulse in all her works, dazzling arrays of color and line applied on a layered visual ground. She also adopts and distorts elements of consumer culture, ranging from street magazines with band listings to advertising graphics and sportswear logos. These diverse elements relate to each other in a superstructure that suggests systems of motion—flight patterns, wind and water currents, airports, highways, subways, phone lines, satellite trajectories, urban and natural places where people meet.
The tops of her work often show a tornado-like form whirling away, the exploding result of a stream of ideas, words, or perhaps a collective cheer. Though her forms often appear to be disintegrating or collapsing, the consistent formal element of Mehretu's work is a complex interplay of precision and chaos. Asked about the existence of God in her work, Mehretu acknowledged the possibility of a higher being influencing, controlling, and weighing in on the activities.6 Many of Mehretu's paintings feature a form at the upper center of the work pushing down—sometimes subtly, other times less so—upon the action in the center of the frame. The compositions reflect those of reverential paintings and architecture, leading the eye and the energy of the viewer upward.
Mehretu has referred to at least one of her works as "propaganda painting."7 Art historian Kendall Taylor posits that American artists working in the 1930s, such as Ben Shahn, traditionally referred to as Social Realists, might more precisely be identified as ideologists, implying a visionary, idealist approach. These artists viewed themselves as the conscience of American society and banded together in the common struggle to make a positive impact on society.8 Absent a larger working group, Mehretu in her paintings and drawings embodies this same visionary, idealist approach, what she calls her "language of resistance." Keenly interested in the errors that form our current situations, she foregrounds not the failed utopia itself, but what failed and why, as well as what next and how. In the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations, governments, religious zeal, and social mores, Mehretu fearlessly maps the ever-idealistic utopian impulse. When one stands surrounded by her creations, the rallying cry for positivist social change is refreshingly welcome and almost audible.
1. Douglas Fogle and Olukemi Ilesanmi, Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2003), 7.
2. Ibid., 13–14.
3. Lauri Firstenberg, "Painting Platform in NY," Flash Art, November–December 2002, 70.
4. Julie Mehretu, conversation with author at artist's studio in New York, March 10, 2004.
5. Fogle and Ilesanmi, 7.
6. Mehretu conversation with author.
7. Fogle and Ilesanmi, 16.
8. The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, s.v. "Propaganda: After 1900" (by Kendall Taylor), http://www.groveart.com (accessed March 15, 2004)
JULIE MEHRETU was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1970 and lives and works in New York City. She was the recipient of the 2005 MacArthur Foundation Award and has shown in goup and solo exhibitions at The Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (2004), Sao Paulo Biennial, Sao Paulo, Brazil (2004); The Whitney Biennial, New York (2004); Carlier l gebauer in Berlin, Germany (2004); MATRIX at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, CA (2004); Firewall at Ausstellungshalle Zeitgenössische Kunst in Munster, Germany (2004); Remote Viewing: Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, (2005); Currents 95, Julie Mehretu, St. Louis Art Museum, MO (2005); Julie Mehretu — Drawings, Projectile Gallery, New York, (2005); Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, Germany (2006); Musac, Leon, Spain (2006); The 15th Biennale of Sydney, International Festival of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia (2006).
HEIDI ZUCKERMAN JACOBSON is the Director and Chief Curator of the Aspen Art Museum. Her upcoming projects include one-person exhibitions with Simon Evans, Yutaka Sone, Javier Tellez, and Pedro Reyes. From 1999 to 2005 she was the Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, where she curated more then forty solo exhibitions of international contemporary artists such as Peter Doig, Tobias Rehberger, Shirin Neshat, Teresita Fernandez, Julie Mehretu, Doug Aitken, Tacita Dean, Wolfgang Laib, Ernesto Neto, Simryn Gill, Sanford Biggers, and T.J. Wilcox.