Julie Mehretu at the Guggenheim

Julie Mehretu, Berliner Platze, (2008-2009), ink and acrylic on canvas, 304.8 x 426.7 cm.; courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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It is a relief that Julie Mehretu’s paintings, the subject of an exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, are as innocuous as they are. Mehretu’s encompassing and relatively low-key abstractions are, in aesthetic effect, divorced from the obnoxious nature of much contemporary art—you know, the high-profile stuff that trades in Pop spectacle of one sort or another. She’ll have no truck with outrage; deep thoughts are her thing. Who wouldn’t prefer that to the latest cause célèbre?

Mehretu’s sweeping vortices of architectural tracings, densely layered surfaces and gestural brushwork portend a heady amalgam of information overload, historical memory, “the machinations of politics,” and “the formation of social identity.” What they deliver is somewhat epochal, but more mundane: lobby art for the digital age. The paintings are accomplished enough in their dizzying superficiality to be swiftly mooted, roundly applauded, and happily ignored. We never question the work because it doesn’t encourage much in the way of questions in the first place.

As a painter, Mehretu makes a handsomely contrived argument for the benefits of efficiency. The six gargantuan canvases ensconced in one of the Guggenheim’s tower galleries have little to distinguish themselves save for a suave uniformity. Different imagistic motifs and variations in stylistic emphasis notwithstanding, one Mehretu is as good as another—which is to say, not good but predictable. The work isn’t soulless, exactly, but it comes close enough to make you think twice.

The accompanying catalogue features black-and-white photos of the artist’s studio and its assorted accoutrements: overhead projectors, cherrypickers, cupboards packed with acrylics, and an attractively diverse cadre of assistants. The mood is intent and intense; something ambitious is afoot. It doesn’t appear to be a factory in the Warholian sense—no glitz or kitsch here—but that’s not to say Mehretu’s work lacks an assemblyline ethos.

Like most, if not all, artists who achieve commercial credibility, Mehretu is the proverbial victim of her own success—genuine ambition, intellectual scope, and a modestly inventive talent have been streamlined and obscured by capital. Style, here, isn’t necessarily a by-product of market forces, but it is codified by them. No one should begrudge a painter her financial success and not a few artists benefit from healthy bank balances. (There is, after all, something to be said for food and shelter.) But when art is bullied by market viability, aesthetic viability can’t help but be hobbled.

Anyone who has followed Mehretu’s art over the years recognizes that a fixed set of pictorial tics is less indicative of visionary consistency than of branding. That’s why fleeting mentions of serious precedent—the silky sensuality of Chinese landscape painting, for instance, or even the elegant mannerism of Cy Twombly—are invariably reduced to PR bullet points. There’s no give to Mehretu’s art, no sense of probity or discovery. Then again, we don’t expect revelations from a Big Mac either.

A snarky comparison, sure, but the theoretical heavy lifting surrounding Mehretu only emphasizes the work’s blandness. An introductory wall label mentions “the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of the Bush Years” and how they are funneled into Mehretu’s “idea of the modern ruin.” The catalog speaks to the artist’s meditations on “the infinite potential of human interaction and the sheer mass of human endeavor” and a “sedulous engagement with the traditional typology of ruination.”

But Mehretu’s meticulously delineated diagrams, lustrous patinas, clouded dispersals of color and zooming perspectives don’t add up to much more than a fetching blur of disjunction. That the blur is nominally diverting points to Mehretu’s pictorial know-how. That the blur doesn’t expound much beyond its parameters divulges an artist willing to settle for the comforts of professionalism.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 2010 edition of The New Criterion.

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