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The visual impact of Julie Mehretu's paintings is undeniable. Like an explosion in a confetti factory, rainbow-colored circles, triangles, boomerangs, French curves, trapezoids and ribbons burst and scatter across the canvas.
Thanks to a bold, prescient move by contemporary art curator Becky Hart and former curator Kinsey Katcha, a dozen large-scale works by Mehretu celebrate the razzle-dazzle reopening of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The paintings, including five completed specifically for the DIA, fill four galleries adjacent to Diego Rivera's storied Detroit Industry frescoes. It's a match made in heaven. Both artists envision cities in a local and global light.
Mehretu, just shy of 40, is a former Michigander now living in New York; she's also something of a world traveler. Born in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, to an American mother and Ethiopian father, she grew up in East Lansing once her father joined the Michigan State University faculty. Later, she studied at Cheik Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, and Kalmazoo College, before receiving an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1997. She's been internationally exhibited in recent years, most notably at the 2004 Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburgh and two years later at the Biennale of Sydney, Australia.
Mehretu's big paintings represent the unfolding destruction and regeneration of world capitals in gripping, graphic terms. Her art actually justifies the ubiquitous "awesome" to describe their arresting visual presence, but she simply says they are her "way of making sense of what's happening — besides reading."
If you look closely at one of her paintings, beneath the baroque swirls and flourishes that animate the uppermost strata of her multilayered work, obscured details emerge revealing the meticulous, precise architectural drawings of city plans, fortifications, malls, airports, skyscrapers or housing projects. Anywhere from three to nine layers may overlap in a single composition as the artist draws, erases and redraws her sweeping vistas. Somewhere in the middle is a layer or two flickering with dots, clustered dabs, hatchmark aggregates and clouds of washy, diluted ink that read as smoke and flames — or suggest dense, restless swarms of people. We see all this as if we are the omniscient narrator in a novel, watching darkly hued elements threaten, alter and consume the urban fabric.
Five works were created specifically for this exhibition. At 10 feet by 16 feet, "Black City" is the largest of the artist's Detroit suite of paintings, and it evokes our city's rise, fall and rebuilding. Precisely drawn bunkers, guard towers and military barracks, partially obliterated by onrushing currents of dots and dashes, reflect the ominous title. Menacing, unidentifiable forms hover above ensuing destruction. One quirky, black form in particular, situated at bottom center, alternately suggests helicopter, drone, UFO or stealth bomber. At top, broad arcs suggest furious winds swirling and howling over the city. A long, blue sliver, just left of center, may be a nourishing body of water offering respite from frenetic movement. Renewal is implicit. As devastating as most of the canvas seems, there is comfort in the notion that countless historical narratives delineate destruction and renewal. Whether the result of human or natural depredations, or both, villages, cultures, states, governments invariably regroup, adapt, change, rebuild and begin again.
Mehretu's global vision perhaps stems from a peripatetic existence and a life spent interacting with diverse cultures. The "mapping" is a motif that emerged in art practice over the last few generations. In the 1980s, Argentine artist Guillermo Kuitca's canvases detailed the site plans of cemeteries, theaters and apartment buildings, and Detroiter Cay Bahnmiller produced a series of "map works" based on blueprints of Tiger Stadium. This month, Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art opened a show called Mapping the Self.
Some critics of Mehretu's work say her paintings are hobbled by repetition and predictability, or, given their flat, illustrative surfaces, that they seem overdetermined and conceptualized. There is a disconnect between the volatile global crises referenced and the artist's cool, exacting execution. An academic colleague, channeling Gertrude Stein, recently remarked, "There's no there there." The implication was that Mehretu seemed disengaged, her art too theory-driven. But it may simply be that her imagery so precisely reiterates her perspective: Since the world is rife with antagonisms that foster a state of perpetual flux, the social and physical fabric of her "city sites" wax and wane, morph, flourish, backslide, and even collapse over time. No specific locales are identified — her ideas of ebb and flow apply broadly to all cities in general rather than singling out Detroit as a poster child for disintegration
That said, in ways that matter more, walking into the final gallery of the exhibition, surrounded by Mehretu's muralistic three panel ensemble "Stadia I, II, and III" on three walls, you feel distinctly there — standing at the 50-yard line of a spectacularly "dissolving" sports arena and existing in the universe. You also feel exhilarated to be standing in the DIA, with Rivera's Detroit Industry frescoes in the courtyard next door similarly grounding the visitor both within the factory and cosmos.
Julie Mehretu: City Sitings runs Nov. 23 through March 30, 2008, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900.
Dennis Alan Nawrocki teaches modern and contemporary art history at College for Creative Studies and Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.