“I am interested in the multifaceted layers of place, space, and time that impact the formation of personal and communal identity”, states Ethiopian-born artist Julie Mehretu.
Liminal Squared, her first UK solo exhibition at White Cube in Bermondsey, brings together narratives of ideology, culture, power, and personal freedoms. These concepts wrestle for meaning and order on the two-dimensional surface, combining a lexicon of architectural forms, geometrical shapes and painterly expression. The sheer scale of these works, which are vast and intimidating, should not detract from the fact that Mehretu has produced a far riskier opus. It is more intricate, dense, and visually interesting than ever before.
Initially I was struck by their size and felt dumbstruck, but upon reflection I felt that my reaction testifies to the success of her endeavor. At first glance they seem over-articulated, even unnecessarily monumental. It seems difficult to even say that there is a narrative language in place because there is so much information with what seems to lack any coherence in pictorial space. To add to the retinal assault of near-overwhelm, they are exhibited in a space specifically designed by architect David Adjaye within the pristine setting of White Cube that could be read as a contributing device to make the viewer seem diminutive in comparison to the surroundings. Nevertheless, these works hold their own, and if anything, they merit a specially designed space.
Chaos is inherent to a liminal state; for, one is neither in one place nor the other. It is a threshold, a transition. The new works, Mogamma: a painting in four parts are Mehretu’s response to the Arab Spring in 2012. The gargantuan canvases are rendered with precise architectural drawings of the Al-Mogamma government building in Cairo. These linear drawings function almost like a grid, both literally and figuratively, upon which layers of shapes, free-hand ink drawings of varying marks, vectors and skeins of lines, and geometric abstractions are densely piled one upon another and each layer sanded. The predominance of a grey monochrome lends an atmospheric quality, and beneath the polished execution, they communicate chaos and disarray. Yet at the same time they shimmer with the sensation that a form of rebirth is afoot.
Mogamma means “collective” in Arabic, and also refers to a multi-faith place that has a mosque, a synagogue and a church. Also included in the exhibition are Kabul and Venice, also urban places for power and rallying points for revolution. It took time to look and to digest, where I was prompted to decipher what was under each layer and how it communicated to me visually, sensorially and emotionally. In doing so, I began to appreciate her process as well as her intent, not to mention the treacherous feat in producing these rather wonderfully complex landscapes.
If, for Mehretu, architecture is about ideas and metaphors for power, then these works aptly symbolize the war between calcified power structures and individual liberties. These days it is a challenge to successfully marry grand concepts with artistic authenticity. I believe Mehretu has risen to that challenge: the depiction of pandemonium, violence and anarchy exist alongside the way of working that seems to characterize her style which I find to be an interesting pictorial language that doesn’t necessarily have to adhere to a predetermined academic or art market construct.
It needs to be said that in sharp contrast to the spectacular Mogamma, Kabul, and Venice works, Being Higher I and II, are mere 84 x 60 inch canvases that simply bear the workings of the artist’s hand. They appear at the entrance of the exhibition, as interesting juxtaposition, almost as if to prepare us for what is to come further in the gallery. Dense and frenetic mark making with black ink washes and acrylic seem to depict a sort of internal struggle. One of them left me with the impression of the greasy trace of a bird caught by surprise mid-flight, as if it has crashed unsuspectingly onto the glass pane of a window. If Mehretu, by her own admission, has struggled with the decision to make such monumental works in the past, it is hardly surprising that these two pieces enter the show almost incongruously. They can be easily forgotten after the drama of the main act, but they should not be.
WORDS: KAREN GARRATT
JULIE MEHRETU: LIMINAL SQUARED – WHITE CUBE BERMONDSEY Until 17 July