Painting of the Day

12 Apr

Dispersion. by Julie Mehretu (born 1970). Ink and acrylic on canvas, 2002. In the collection of Nicolas and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, New York.

Notes from Stokstad & Cothren’s Art History, 4th edition:

While many African artists are primarily influenced by their own culture and traditions, others–especially some who no longer live on the continent–seem entirely removed from African stylistic influences and yet still express the search for a new African identity in revelatory ways. Their experiences of movement, accommodation, and change often become important elements in their art making and form an additional basis for the interpretation of their work.

Julie Mehretu is an eminent example of this kind of artist. Born in Ethiopia in 1970, but having lived as well in Senegal and the United States, and now in New York City, Mehretu makes large-scale paintings and wall drawings that exude intense energy. Her works speak not only to her own history of movement and change, but also to the transnational movement of myriad others uprooted by choice or by force as they create new identities in this increasingly turbulent period of globalization and change.

The underpinnings of her intricately layered canvases are architectural plans of airports, passenger terminals, and other places where people congregate and pass through during their lives. Layered and at times obscuring these architectural elements is an immense inventory of signs and markings influenced by cartography, weather maps, Japanese and Chinese calligraphy, tattooing, graffiti, and various stylized forms suggesting smoke and explosions borrowed from cartoons, comic books, and anime. Occasionally architectural details such as arches, stairways, and columns reminiscent of Durer or Piranesi can also be discerned. The ambiguous reading of the paintings as either implosion and chaos or explosion and regeneration gives the works visual and conceptual complexity. Mehretu explains¬† that she is not interested in describing or mapping specific locations but “in the multifaceted layers of place, space, and time that impact the formation of personal and communal identity.” Mehretu’s concerns echo those of other contemporary African artists whose identification with the continent becomes increasingly complex as they move from Africa and enter a global arena.

My comments:

I really like this painting because it looks pretty abstract and random, as random as a Jackson Pollock painting, but in fact it is very deliberate and made up of a rainbow of various cultural artifacts from societies all around the world. I’ve never seen this painting in person, but I bet that this inclusion of so many elements would be easier to appreciate if one saw the painting in real life. Her inclusion of such a variety of symbols is quite clever, and to me this is where contemporary art has value and becomes relevant to society rather than just being snotty and esoteric, where it so often ends up. I feel that a lot of contemporary is all about making fun of society and often reveals the pretentious, snooty character of the artist, and I find it pretty off-putting because as a viewer it always feels like the artists are making fun of me and other people in my community, assuming that we do not have as much intelligence as them. So they use art to prove their superiority to us rather than to express things that everyone can understand or empathize with in an ingenious and beautiful way. But this is what Mehretu does, and it poses some interesting questions about the cultural direction of humanity as a whole.

These questions are even more apt today than they were in 2002 when Mehretu painted this work because the world is even more globalized today. This globalization is evident everywhere, even in art history textbooks. In the sections of the textbook that cover non-Western art, art from earlier time periods has zero Western influence and reveals completely different and fascinating conceptions of aesthetics, beauty, and just about everything regarding how people live and think. But in these same sections when they present art being made closer to the present in the 20th and 21st centuries, there is dramatically more Western influence, and the artists’ work is effectively indistinguishable from Western contemporary art. So it would seem that eventually, all art is going to be informed by the dominant cultural traditions of the world, and the Western ones will probably be dominant for at least a long while so it’s safe to say that art from non-Western places will look more and more Western. Art that looks “non-Western,” such as African tribal masks or Aboriginal sculptures, will slowly but surely become extinct. What does this mean? Would it be forced and artificial for us to try to preserve non-Western cultures and their art, if we do this without keeping these cultures stuck in poverty as they so often are? Is it possible to provide them the same opportunities for economic development without having to make them give up their artistic traditions? Is it even a goal we should have, or should art just always be responding to the times? I’m really not sure, personally, because I don’t want to sound condescending like I feel like a have to be a nanny for other peoples’ cultures, and I don’t even though if they care about preserving their cultural traditions; I don’t even know if they value their art in the exact same ways we do. Overall it’s a very interesting discussion to have and I’ll be curious if I ever see it appear in the art world.

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