Mehretu’s remarkable works are inspired by an incredibly diverse range of influences: cityscapes, cartography, Chinese calligraphy and modern master Wassily Kandinsky amongst them. Mehretu has also spoken of her fascination with the art form of Chinese calligraphy: “There is a definite visual similarity between my brushwork and Chinese calligraphy, as well as a conceptual similarity in the sense that in Chinese calligraphy every mark has a meaning and there is an energy that leads you where you are trying to get to: there is a way to paint the leaves on a tree, the grass on a hill or even the cosmos. In a way, I’m doing that in a more abstract way.” (The artist cited in: Augustin Pérez Rubio, in: "Tracing the Universe of Julie Mehretu, A Choral Text," in: Exhibition Catalogue, Castille, Julie Mehretu, 2006-2007, p. 36). Indeed, the washes of black across the centre of the composition within Rising Down appear to evoke the gestural language of Chinese ink painting, and, by extension, Mehretu’s suggestion of a sense of cosmic import within her work appears particularly opposite in this instance, with the areas of black arguably appropriating the forms of cosmic nebulae or dust clouds.
The kaleidoscope of colours and forms thus takes on even greater significance, suggesting some form of universal titanic struggle: the celestial chaos associated, perhaps, with the destruction or rebirth of an astrophysical phenomena. The concept of the ‘music of the spheres’ can be invoked here as well, with Rubio arguing that Mehretu’s works have an inherently melodic structure: “All paintings by this artist can be analysed in musical terms… because the small marks spread out like notes on scores have their own… choreographic quality, moving across the pictures in the form of a fugue, a toccata, or a requiem, each with their own movement and tempo.” (Ibid., p. 36). Rising Down can thus be read as a vast symphonic score, a celebration of the unique suspended mental stage suggested by Mehretu’s works, in which various sensations –primarily sound and sight – are amalgamated into one heroic creative Gesamtkunstwerk. Mehretu's invocation of melody and symphonic cacaphony recalls the musical inclinations of her artistic predecessor, Wassily Kandinsky, who famously appropriated musical theory to his painting. In 1947, Kandinsky remarked, "The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble." Mehretu also looked to Kandinsky with regard to ideas and depictions of the chaos of spaces, which reference Kandinsky's theories in his 1920 essay "The Great Utopia," where he discusses the inevitable implosion or explosion of our construction spaces out of sheer necessity of expansion.With such informed inspirations, Mehretu is able to successfully reconcile many of the approaches of the past century's artists, uniting physical and sensual expressiveness and socially relevant reflection.
Cityscapes and architecture have also acted as source of inspiration for Mehretu since the beginning of her artistic career: “I think architecture reflects the machinations of politics, and that’s why I am interested in it as a metaphor for those institutions. I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space. It’s about space, but about spaces of power, about the ideas of power…” (The artist cited in: Ibid., p. 29). The association in the artist’s mind of architecture with political power assumes added significance when personal experience is taken into account: born in Ethiopia in 1970, Mehretu and her family fled the country in 1977 as the political situation became steadily more unsettled, choosing to live in the United States instead. Mehretu’s cities frequently appear to be under attack within her paintings, perhaps as an allusion of sorts to the instability of many political regimes in the land of her birth, with works such as Bombing Babylon and Untitled 2 (both 2001) clearly featuring flashes of bright orange flame designating explosives. Whilst Rising Down is more subtle in its depiction of the theme, there remains a sense of tumult and unrest inherent within the manifold dynamics of the composition. The vivid red and yellow lines, sweeping across the centre of the canvas, suggest the path of a meteor or lightning bolt descending on the world below, whilst the areas of black assume the appearance of drifting smoke. Yet a careful perusal reveals that the cityscape beneath remains miraculously untouched, as though protected from the turmoil above. The seeming contradiction is reflected in the title of the work, Rising Down, in which opposite concepts struggle for supremacy, perhaps ultimately cancelling each other out. The overall impression is one of immense energy and power: a thrillingly visceral experience which simultaneously enthrals and fascinates. Rising Down masterfully epitomises Mehretu’s key artistic concerns and ideals, standing as a superb delineation of her utterly distinctive, gloriously evocative, artistic language.
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