Julie Mehretu makes large-scale, gestural paintings that are built up through layers of acrylic paint on canvas overlaid with mark-making using pencil, pen, ink and thick streams of paint. Mehretu’s work conveys a layering and compression of time, space and place and a collapse of art historical references, from the dynamism of the Italian Futurists and the geometric abstraction of Malevich to the enveloping scale of Abstract Expressionist colour field painting. In her highly worked canvases, Mehretu creates new narratives using abstracted images of cities, histories, wars and geographies with a frenetic mark making that for the artist becomes a way of signifying social agency as well suggesting an unravelling of a personal biography.
Mehretu’s points of departure are architecture and the city, particularly the accelerated, compressed and densely populated urban environments of the 21st Century. Her canvases overlay different architectural features such as columns, façades and porticoes with geographical schema such as charts, building plans and city maps and architectural renderings, seen from multiple perspectives, at once aerial, cross-section and isometric. Her paintings present a tornado of visual incident where gridded cities become fluid and flattened, like many layers of urban graffiti. Mehretu has described her rich canvases as “story maps of no location”, seeing them as pictures into an imagined, rather than actual reality. Through its cacophony of marks, her work seems to represent the speed of the modern city depicted, conversely, with the time-aged materials of pencil and paint.
Julie Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa in 1970 and lives and works in New York. Mehretu has exhibited extensively including a travelling mid-career survey at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2021-22); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2021); High Museum of Art, Atlanta (2020-21); and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2019-20). Other solo exhibitions include Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (2019); Serralves Museum, Porto, Portugal (2017); Centro Botín, Santander, Spain (2017); Gebre Kristos Desta Center, Addis Ababa (2016); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2010); Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (2009); The Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan (2007) touring to Williams College Art Gallery, Williamstown, Massachusetts and North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh (both 2008) Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, Spain, touring to Kunstverein Hannover, Germany and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark (2006-07); St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri (2005); and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, touring to REDCAT, Los Angeles and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, (2003-04).
Selected group exhibitions include the 58th Venice Biennale (2019); Performa 17, New York (2017); 12th Sharjah Biennial (2015); 10th Gwangju Biennale, South Korea (2014); Document 13, Kassel, Germany (2012); 15th Biennale of Sydney (2006); 26th Bienal de São Paulo (2004); 54th Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (2004); Whitney Biennial, New York (2004); and 8th Istanbul Biennial (2003).
In 2005 Mehretu was the recipient of the American Art Award from the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as the prestigious MacArthur Fellows Award. In 2015 she was awarded the US Department of State Medal of Arts Award, and in 2021 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 2017, a monumental two-part painting, ‘HOWL, eon’ (I, II) commissioned by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was unveiled as a major, long-term installation in the lobby of the museum. Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, UK, hosted an exhibition of Mehretu’s works on paper presented alongside ‘Louise Bourgeois: Artist Rooms’ in January 2019. Mehretu’s mid-career survey co-organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, opened at LACMA in Autumn 2019, touring to the High Museum, Atlanta, Whitney Museum, New York and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, throughout 2020 and 2021.