Untitled 2 is anchored by an abstract architectonic expanse, a dream-like urban landscape bisected by sweeping arcs, seemingly frozen in the midst of a rapid outward expansion. With no discernible orientation or entry point, this fractured urban setting skirts the border of legibility, often relinquishing brief passages of familiarity in the guise of a building façade or street corner, before transitioning back to its own internal logic. In her body of work, Mehretu pulls from sources as disparate as airport architecture, flight plans, sports arenas, and the ruins left by warzones in order to craft the underlying armature of her painting. In Mehretu’s view, architectural forms serve as proxies for political realities, and their dissection and subversion in her painting helps to expose the foundations of larger societal trends.
Mehretu utilizes the concept of the 'third space,' as articulated in Post-Colonial theory, as the basis of her works to illuminate the visible and invisible networks of globalization. The 'third space,' for Mehretu, is “a term that provocatively designates the visual relation between architecture and gesture, representation and abstraction, a relationality that remains determinedly and productively uncertain” (T.J. Demos in Painting and Uprising: Julie Mehretu’s Third Space, New York 2012, p. 59). Born in Ethiopia and raised in New York, Mehretu employs her unique visual mode as a manifestation of the theoretical 'third space,' delineating the harmonies and violence inherent to places which are connected by history, capital, and technology. In this sense, Untitled 2 acts not just as an example of the artist’s inimitable stylistic signature, but also as an experience, both explosive and meandering, a reminder of all that simmers under the surface of urban space.
Drawn with the unwavering line of technical architectural drawing, the under layer communicates an exactitude and instructional quality without yielding an easy linear path. Fully viewing Untitled 2 requires perambulation—repeated phases of close inspection paired with surveillance from a distance. This choreographed viewing process transcends the traditional act of looking by incorporating the body, yielding new visual discoveries with each round. In this way, taking in the work is an exercise in navigation that emulates the process of moving through a new urban space without guide or map. One might choose a path and come to a dead end, retreat to a starting point and then approach another point of access.
Mehretu jolts this impenetrable but orderly system with a valence of gestural markings, some grouped like calligraphic swarms of fish and others dragged across the composition, leaving evidence of her artistic vitality and creativity. If Mehretu’s markings are script like, then they are written in a wildly associative language, each individual stroke informed by its interaction with the linear foundation underneath and the other markings around it. This free form layer enhances the sense of the work having a navigational function, each line, mark, dash, and pinpoint leading the viewer through an environment free from physics and reason.
Beyond the visual contrast between hard lines and more organic markings, Mehretu seeks to engage with sociological concepts using these battling visual languages as proxies. In the words of T.J. Demos “with Mehretu’s canvases, we encounter an unbuilding, a de-architecturalization, of built space; a revolution in other words, in painterly form...mathematically shaped groupings, amorphous swarms, and linear trajectories appear to correspond to manifold collective assemblages and social movements” (ibid., 58). Within the present work, floating doorways, orderly processions of minute dashes, and roving swarms of ink drops take on new associations when thought of simultaneously, bringing to mind notions of movement and migration, access and entry.
Mehretu pulls her canvas into the realm of the abstract through the use of exuberant, lively spreads of color overlaid on top of the scene. Equally recalling the vernacular of super hero comics and the work of Kandinsky, these shapes project out and curve through the space, forging a sense of recession and depth in the composition. Subverting traditional notions of figure and ground, these passages of color act as both a form of erasure—they partially cover the painstakingly rendered architectural and freeform under layer—as well as serve to emphasize the myriad attenuated details which make up the canvas by engaging the eye and encouraging close looking.
Brought together, these three distinct visual languages demonstrate a singular conceptual clarity and technical virtuosity; they are at once inscrutable yet also follow a defined and highly sophisticated set of rules. With its scattered architectural details, projecting lines, and hovering fields of color, Untitled 2 variously recalls the multiple perceptions a public can have of any given place, as well as the common connections between disparate, far flung locations.
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