Achieving an immediate and emphatic graphic impact, Julie Mehretu’s Arcade from 2005 confronts the viewer with a dizzying abstract matrix that conjures infinity in its depth, intricacy, and multi-dimensionality. A superb example of Mehretu’s signature mode and executed upon a dramatic scale, the present work achieves a layering and compression of form, line, and hue that defies preconceived limitations of two-dimensional painting. Seeming to collapse centuries of art historical references within a single canvas, Arcade employs new narratives of abstraction as a means of exploring the complex political and social realities of the twenty-first century. Honored as a recipient of the MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ Fellowship Award in 2005 and, more recently, of the U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts in 2015, Mehretu has garnered widespread acclaim as amongst the most influential artists of her generation; featured in innumerable prestigious exhibitions and biennales worldwide, her distinctive output has become instantly recognizable for its complex compositions and mythical worlds that, unfolding before the viewer, toe the line between the real, virtual, and imagined. Testifying to the caliber of the present work, Arcade was included in Mehretu’s critically acclaimed exhibition in 2006-2007, Black City, on view at several institutions including the Louisiana Museum in Humlebæk, Denmark and the Kunstverein Hannover, Germany. Simultaneously riotously chaotic and exactingly precise, Mehretu’s cacophony of mark-making draws the viewer into a world seen simultaneously from above, outside, and within; from the depths of this architectonic matrix, a burst of metallic golden rays expands outward to the farmost edges of Mehretu’s canvas, illuminating the collapsing vortex of half-formed façades and cross-sectioned grids in the mesmerizing space before us.
Architecturally structured and delicately layered, Arcade epitomizes the complex engagement with art history for which Mehretu is best known; invoking movements as disparate as Constructivism and Futurism, the present work appears “built…over time, stratum upon stratum, beginning with architectural scores sampled from sources at once diverse and precise, and materializing through an accretion of graphic shapes and expressive marks.” (Exh. Cat., Detroit, Detroit Institute of Arts, Deconstruction/Construction, 2007, p. 50) Indeed, the present work derives its title from the Arcades Project, an unfinished undertaking of the German literary critic Walter Benjamin, written between 1927 and 1940; in this posthumously published text, Benjamin addresses the Parisian passages couverts de Paris, or 'arcades,' and their direct link to the city's distinctive city life and Flâneur culture. Furthermore, Benjamin conceived of the Arcades Project as a manifestation of collage technique in literature, an aesthetic that is beautifully embodied in the riotous linear dynamism of the present work. Mehretu here demonstrates an acute awareness of Benjamin's text and Giacomo Balla’s Futurist explorations of motion, light and atmosphere, while her seemingly suspended forms suggest Kandinsky’s prismatic, celestial compositions; however, the freneticism of such antecedents is channeled through Mehretu’s own more measured approach, the velocity and potency bridled by the rigorous exactitude of her unique practice. With painstaking care, the artist culls the diverse forms and figures within her compositions from a vast array of archival architectural materials; ranging from ancient city grids to forgotten plans for public monuments, maps of urban sprawl to intricate palatial edifices, Mehretu’s source materials invoke the premise of architecture as a medium for examining collective histories. Within Arcade, Mehretu’s imagined topography is realized through a formal vocabulary of color, gesture, line, mark, and form, utilizing the visual foundations of our civilization as materials to be flattened, juxtaposed, and stratified upon one another. “Each painting is an occurrence preserved, but only for a moment, in an uneasy split-second resting point. Composition is action, a physical laying down of one snapshot over another. Stacked in transparent films, coexistent histories are embedded yet still visible in the terrain of a hyperreal city.” (Ibid.) Achieving a visual panoply of imagery that evokes the events of our times while intimately engaging art historical precedent, Arcade mines the past for formal techniques and tools with which to examine our world; within this matrix of visual incident, Mehretu’s painting offers a new language of abstraction as a way of articulating the chaos, complexity, and universality of the human experience.
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