Fragmented into a dizzying array of vectors and kinetic motion, Bombing Babylon, Mehretu’s masterpiece painting completed in 2000, is a deconstructionist argument come to proverbial life. The very genesis of her method begins with a robust compositional plan sustained by her exquisite and precise architectural draftsmanship. Mehretu’s genius is most palpable within her compositionally theatrical and futuristic settings that possess a multitude of vanishing points. The spatial phenomena of her painting create a dynamic tension and resistance: a collision and fray, where elements and ideas come together just as easily as they appear to fall apart. Paintings such as the present work therefore represent an ideological vision that rests its stunning general tome on the preclusion that history simply repeats itself. Are the stunning visual gestures within Bombing Babylon a tale of caution or reflection, or both? Clearly, the dramatic spectacle within the picture is a poignant and deliberate corollary to those in our present and existing reality.
Bombing Babylon’s epic gestural tale extends beyond the eponymous subject matter. The surface of the painting harnesses the composition’s subject within its intricate web, serving as a sublime vessel of multifaceted and emotionally charged visual vocabulary. The physical layering of the medium in Bombing Babylon is arguably as complex as the conceptual framework on which the painting rests. Mehretu’s aesthetic world navigates the periphery of the real and virtual. It is a constant exploration of representing the world in which she lives and the world in which her work resides. The specific subject matter is one that resonates deeply with the artist. Citing personal memory, Mehretu recalls her experience visiting an exhibition in Germany that directly influenced the concept for Bombing Babylon:
"I went to see the Babylon show at the Pergamon in Berlin. There was a deep description about the history of Babylon, the number of wars, the number of times that a certain type of history has been erased…The blatant, haphazard wiping out of part of that history can be very depressing. The other side of it is that things will continue and that there is a different kind of growth that can come again and that things evolve. Looking at these things simultaneously – seeing these two powers challenge each other in the work – time and space are collapsed.” (Julie Mehretu in conversation with Art21)
Marred by the context of war, Bombing Babylon is a visual flight towards safety, culminating in a political and social continuum that has neither a logical beginning nor a conclusive end. Reflected brilliantly in the devastating explosions within the architectural structures of Bombing Babylon, Mehretu optimistically seeks formation and order amidst chaos and disarray.
Mehretu boldly reconciles methods of the past century’s artists, uniting physical and sensory expressiveness with socially relevant reflection. She filters the styles of modern masters like Wassily Kandinsky and Umberto Boccioni through her own historical consciousness, creating a veritable zeitgeist of her era. Permeating the layers of her paintings is the dynamism of Futurism, united with the abstract geometry of Constructivism, creating a controlled chaos that the artist has meticulously planned and suspended in space. Mehretu’s bold adaptation of her predecessors explodes out from various perspectives, her surfaces composed of a sheer multitude of marks that almost challenge one another in their pursuit of a stable narrative. Mehretu’s work invokes a symphonic crescendo that recalls the musical inclinations of her artistic predecessor, Kandinsky, who appropriated musical theory to his painting, once noting, “The sound of color is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.” (Wassily Kandinsky, 1947)
The structure, architecture, and poignant signage within Bombing Babylon are so complex and its composition so dynamic and charged, the painting demands in its viewer a visceral, emotional response. Mehretu’s philosophical sermon commands the reflection and introspection as was in the hands of its brilliant creator. The mapping, layering and reason within Bombing Babylon are a meaningful evolution of the artist’s, and thereby our, changing perspective and necessary response to an ever-changing and increasingly unstable world.
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