“I am also interested in what Kandinsky referred to in “The Great Utopia” when he talked about the inevitable implosion and/or explosion of our constructed spaces out of the sheer necessity of agency... it is in these same spaces that you can feel the undercurrents of complete chaos, violence, and disorder. Like going to see fireworks – you feel the crowd at the same time as you feel the explosions.”
Black Ground (deep light) detonates a cataclysmic explosion and suspends it – in all its ruthless rhapsodic and thunderous glory – in time and space. At once daunting and mesmerizing, a visual and psychosomatic assault to the senses on an epic scale, the painting hails from Julie Mehretu’s most recognised and acclaimed body of work and ranks amongst the most visually arresting works from the series. With its eponymous charcoal black (back)ground, Black Ground (deep light) exhibits a rare departure in terms of the artist’s usual strategy of pale creamy backgrounds and demonstrates the full technical force of her mastery over colour and line. Within the majestic scale and dense depths of the work, Mehretu commandeers vertiginous layers and matrices of combusting vectors, geometric shapes and free-floating optical forms, all of which are superimposed onto an exquisitely executed cityscape delineated with extraordinary precision. The astonishingly meticulous draughtsmanship of the background unveils hints of urban architectural elements and metropolitan topographies, whose breathtakingly fragile and ethereal exactitude is categorically maimed and defaced by tidal onrushes of intense black strokes, akin to skid marks. Highly ambitious and complex, executed in the same year as the artist's critically acclaimed exhibition at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Castilla y Leon, Black Ground (deep light) is Mehretu at her very finest.
Since the late 1990s, Mehretu began employing architectural drawings, terrain maps and construction blueprints as both formal and conceptual tools within her abstract lexicon, generating an intricate visual vocabulary compellingly rooted in social, historical and geographic commentary: global population shifts, mobilised armies, urban mapping and structural planning. The artist has stated: “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 ‘Tracing the Universe of Julie Mehretu, A Choral Text’ in exh. cat. Castille, Julie Mehretu, 2006-2007, 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. Like in Black Ground (deep light), Mehretu’s cities frequently appear to be under attack, perhaps as an allusion of sorts to the instability of many political regimes in the land of her birth. What is demonstrated, however, is less the violent aftermath of a destructive explosion than the ferociously ruthless force of anonymous institutions and the immense sense of their merciless jubilance – a potent analogy for the complex global power structures that have determined all existence since the dawn of civilization.
As such, the city in Black Ground (deep light) could be on the brink of destruction or, conversely, on the brink of formation; what Mehretu is concerned with is not the singular but the universal and the eternal – the complex and multivalent nature of contemporary urban experience and its inherent and inevitable incendiary energies stemming from sheer necessity of expansion. As the artist explains: “I am also interested in what Kandinsky referred to in “The Great Utopia” when he talked about the inevitable implosion and/or explosion of our constructed spaces out of the sheer necessity of agency... it is in these same spaces that you can feel the undercurrents of complete chaos, violence, and disorder. Like going to see fireworks – you feel the crowd at the same time as you feel the explosions” (the artist cited in ‘Looking Back: Email Interview Between Julie Mehretu and Olukemi Ilesanmi, April 2003’, in exh. cat. Minneapolis, Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, Walker Art Center, 2003, pp. 13-14). Though the forms in her paintings often appear to be crumbling, the entire composition is held together as an undeniable holistic whole by a permeating sense of power – both that of majority and minority agencies. Against such an interpretation, the black marks that mutilate the architectural diagrams of her works are potently charged; each vector and each stroke, however faint, gaining identity and purpose as a character of uprising and rebellion.
Formally, Black Ground (deep light) is theatrical, drawing the onlooker inwards. Mehretu’s kaleidoscopic visual lexicon fuses painting and drawing, abstraction and figuration, precision and pandemonium, the gestural and the mathematical; simultaneously referencing and expanding the epic grandeur of the Futurists, the geometric abstraction of Malevich and the heroic gestures of the Abstract Expressionists. Her works exude an undeniable melodic structure; as Augustin Pérez Rubio observes: “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.” (Augustin Pérez Rubio, in ‘Tracing the Universe of Julie Mehretu, A Choral Text’ in Castille, Julie Mehretu, 2006-2007, p. 36). Black Ground (deep light) can thus be read as a vast symphonic score; indeed, Mehretu’s invocation of melody and symphonic cacophony recalls the musical inclinations of her artistic predecessor 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”. 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.