Ghost in the Image: Julie Mehretu’s Haunted Vision
In the late summer of 2016, a distressing image emerged from the Syrian city of Aleppo: the small figure of a five-year-old boy, Omran Daqneesh, was photographed covered in blood and dust, sitting stunned and in shock in an ambulance after a government air strike on the rebel-controlled neighbourhood where he happened to live. Direct and poignant, it was one of a large number of photographs of the bombings and destruction in Syria distributed by a network of citizen journalists, images that went quickly viral and sparked fierce condemnation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Russian military backers. At the time, in New York, painter Julie Mehretu was finishing work for a solo exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery which would feature paintings that directly responded to these images of the politically charged events in the Middle East and beyond.
Born in 1970, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Mehretu came to art-world prominence in the early-2000s by channeling her interest in geography, architecture, urban development and history into a distinct abstract painting style. Her best-known works consist of layers of acrylic medium and architectural drawings and photographs that co-mingle with “communities” of marks, shapes and smudges, arranged in sweeping compositions across large-scale supports. In their Cartesian exactitude, they suggest city maps, trade routes and battlefields.
Mehretu’s early signature style culminated in 2010 in Mural, a massive commission for the Goldman Sachs headquarters in Lower Manhattan. At more than 167 square metres, the painting was so big that the New York-based artist temporarily relocated her studio (and staff) to a former Luger pistol factory in Berlin. Encapsulating the psychogeography of neoliberalism, Mural was described by Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker as “a visual history of capitalism in abstract terms”. Despite the obvious irony, given Goldman Sachs's involvement in the worst global recession since the 1930s, the painting still carried a whiff of pre-2008 optimism, a vision of humankind as a shared community, bound only by the free, transactional flow of capital.
Six years later, in Hoodnyx, Voodoo and Stelae – the 2016 exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York – Mehretu’s vision had darkened considerably. The artist introduced a new visual language and evolved abstract vocabulary: brooding and chaotic, tangles of airbrushed black and grey lines hovered over the paintings’ blurred backgrounds. Hazy colour accents of peach, rose and robin’s egg blue gave the images a luminescent glow. They are based on contemporary news photographs that the artist collects, images that have "haunted" and "stayed with" her. In choosing titles such as Conjured Parts (heart), Aleppo and Stelae 4 (Hoodnyx), Mehretu had borrowed from a wide range of sources: the names of the cities that mark modern day’s societal traumas (Aleppo, Damascus and Ferguson), funerary stones (stelae), the deities of ancient myths and human anatomy. The paintings feel urgent but also carry a deep historical awareness.
“I’m a very political person,” Mehretu said in an audio interview published by the Museum of Non-visible Art at the time. “I’m engaged in the world as a citizen who’s very passionate about what I think is right and not right … and change that I'd like to see happen. I make my work from that place.” The political reality in 2016, in particular the fate of revolutionary praxis, the Arab Spring, gestures in Africa and Brazil, struck Mehretu as worrisome. “It feels like things have fallen apart, or unraveled, in a bigger sense,” she reflected. "And I have been thinking about the ways a new imagination can emerge in response."
Conjured Parts (heart), Aleppo (2016), shown at the Marian Goodman Gallery and acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, extends this feeling of despair beyond the arena of politics, into a formless, incomprehensible realm. Mehretu has transformed the surface of the canvas into an occult space, filled with trailing spirits, ghosts and apparitions. "I’m also very much involved in aesthetics and painting and the history of painting and there is a place for what you can’t speak about and what is unrepresentable … where things get mucky and complicated and where art can negotiate that. I try to follow what I don’t understand and that is a big part of where I make from,” Mehretu says. "I was interested in, when you blur these photographs — if you removed all legible information — it still had this almost haunting dynamic taking place, this apparition within the blurred aspect of darks and light." In its abstraction, Conjured Parts (heart), Aleppo reveals the haunted world that lies behind the visible.
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