Julie Mehretu at Projectile

 Julie Mehretu, UntitledJulie Mehretu, Untitled (2002), ink on vellum and mylar, 18″ x 24″; courtesy Projectile

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My students tell me the painter Julie Mehretu is hot stuff. Given the heft of her press packet, she must be: You can flip through its pages at the front desk of Projectile, a West 57th Street gallery that’s exhibiting Ms. Mehretu’s works on paper.An impressive batch of clippings may signify a major reputation, but can it tell us about, you know, the art? The Mehretus I’ve come across have left only a vague impression; all my memory can scrabble up is that the pictures poach upon the scattershot aesthetic of the Information Age.

All of which could mean that I encountered Ms. Mehretu’s art on an off day and was unable to muster the attention it merited. Or it could mean that the pictures are neither here nor there, just white noise occupying valuable Manhattan real estate. The drawings at Projectile–churning, grayish dreamscapes that recall and combine Chinese landscape painting, Kandinsky at his spaciest, Abstract Expressionism and architectural renderings–lead me to believe that both of the above responses are the case.

Ms. Mehretu’s art has its moments. She’s adept, certainly, at varying the character and density of her marks. Ruled lines and clusters of stains; sharp pen pricks and cloudy forms; shapes that could be dragons or birds and hard-edged geometric punctuation-all of them co-exist within a fluid, encompassing cosmos suggestive of the Big Bang or a storm on the rise. That’s the problem: The drawings merely suggest; they don’t give body to the elemental forces, the drama and mystery, that Ms. Mehretu seeks to tap into.

Over the run of 30-some depressingly consistent drawings, you never feel that any one of them is real or meaningful or particular. Attractive, sure; expert, absolutely–but the primary aspect of the work is a discernible lack of core. Ms. Mehretu is a drawing machine. As such, collectors who consider a brand name the most reliable gauge of artistic merit can rest easy with their investment. The rest of us will rue yet another willing capitulation to the marketplace and seek our pleasures elsewhere.

© 2005 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 5, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

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