History. Methodology. Ancient Cartography. Semiotics. Globalization. Post-Modernity. Post-Colonialism. The uniquely informed pictorial language of Julie Mehretu references these emphatic and stalwart declarations, and devours them into the ostensibly most avant-garde adaptation and revival of epic landscape portrayal in art today. The feeling one gets standing before one of Mehretu's paintings is as if standing on a precipice of chaos and harmony, cognizance and ignorance, euphoria and despair. While these dichotomies would collapse virtually any other visual lexicon due to their extreme polarity, under Mehretu's calculated and choreographed orchestration, it is these very binaries that nourish and sustain the essence of paintings such as The Seven Acts of Mercy. The aesthetic topography of Mehretu's paintings are akin to a metropolis of the Zeitgeist, one that represents a disenchanted dystopia emblazoned with graffiti in a constant state of flux; a driving force towards a Utopia involving and evolving towards the pursuit of systemic and absolute order. Deeply participatory, her paintings catapult the viewer into their depths and invite, involve, challenge and inspire.
Julie Mehretu's Seven Acts of Mercy, 2004, is irrefutably among the artist's exceptional masterpieces. An iconographical and idealogical catharsis and tour-de-force, its sheer scale is as awe-inspiring as a force of nature, and within in its presence, the viewer is beguiled by the exhaustive multitude of gesture and careful mark making. Mehretu's drawn line possesses the calculated labyrinthine handling that recalls the meticulous accuracy of Leonardo da Vinci. In this same vein, Mehretu's refined perspective grid realistically charts the proportions of her architectural structures. The central focus of the composition is a circular stadium described by the artist as an iconic reference: "the coliseum, the amphitheatre, and the stadium are perfect metaphoric constructed spaces clearly meant to situate large numbers of people in a highly democratic, organized and functioning manner...[It] is in these same spaces that you can feel the undercurrents of complete chaos, violence and disorder." (Julie Mehretu as quoted in Exh. Cat., Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, Minneapolis, 2003, p. 7).
Fascinatingly, Mehretu's superstructure appears to be a desperate attempt to superimpose systemic and arguably archaic order in the midst of defiant change. The great span of this composition is a centrifugal tempest that encroaches upon the depths of the infrastructure which appears unable to sustain the explosive assault of the surrounding environs. The skin of the canvas appears to breathe through the soothing pools of clear acrylic and silicon in which it is bathed, adding to the malleability of the metropolis itself. This deliberate resilience pulses with an optimistic hope, both physical and psychological, for positive change.
The sources of Julie Mehretu's paintings are culled from a collective art and sociological historiography. Stemming from antiquity to the present, the antecedents of Mehretu's magnificently resplendent Seven Acts of Mercy, 2004, first recall the Christian practices that express mercy. Divided into corporal and spiritual acts to be performed by believers insofar as they are able, the acts of mercy include feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting and ransoming the prisoners, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, and burying the dead. This catalogue of beliefs are exceedingly relevant within the schemata of Mehretu's universe. Caravaggio also immortalized the image in what is arguably his greatest masterpiece, The Seven Works of Mercy, executed circa 1607 and housed in the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples. He literally and symbolically rendered the grace of the Biblical message in order to inspire humanity, dramatically heightening the awareness and compassion of the acts. Mehretu's effort on the same subject, painted nearly four centuries later, dissolves the biblical narrative within the depths and vortex of her abstraction. The essence of what she conveys illustrates Wassily Kandinsky's assertion that the more abstract the form, the more clear and direct its appeal. Painted a year before Hurricane Katrina, Mehretu's prescience of what would face humanity in this instance makes the subject and the intent not only deeply personal for the artist but for the viewer as well. Acts of mercy are dire amidst the undeniable reality of the "cyclical rise and fall of civilizations, governments, religious zeal, and social mores" in order for survival. (Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, "Julie Mehretu: Found Rumblings of the Divine," Parkett, No. 76, May 2006, p. 26). Mehretu's ontological urgency envelopes and engages the viewer, inviting a sense of collective community that will emerge from the ashes and to thrive again.
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