A lesson in reading between the lines

Julie Mehretu at White Cube Bermondsey

There is some well-ordered confusion on display in WC Bermondsey this month, in the form of Julie Mehretu’s topographical masterpieces: a series of ‘drawn’ paintings resembling scribbled over blueprints.

In the first room a series of grey, multi layered works hit you from all sides, asking to be read like landscpes. At first glance these are monochromatic Twombley-esque creations, but closer inspection reveals that they are perfectly formed geometric city grids lushly covered in expressive symbols, shapes and motifs. On the surface of things they are lightly beautiful, of the ilk of Japanese ink drawings, but they leave you itching to peel back the layers and systematically lay them side by side for a clear reading. Mehretu isn’t going to make this so easy for you, these works demand to be deciphered.

Multiple explanations are possible. These could be indications of trace: the jumbled mass of information and imagery which would form the visual representation of our interaction with the globe and its inhabitants. Each drawing could be the biography of a city, a city where a storm is brewing if the moody hues and fierce areas of dense layering are any indication. They could show the new replacing the old, civilised order being replaced and old epochs crumbling into chaos. The artist was born in Ethiopia but now lives and works in Berlin and New York. Her world view is evident; every painting is seeped in a sense of place, is deeply grounded in a location, however abstract it may at first seem.

The last cavernous room along the corridor as always contains the masterpieces. In this case they are ‘Mogamma: A Painting in Four Parts’, works which are described as the outcome of investigation by the artist into urban spaces becoming sites for political and mythological projection. Whilst speaking of politics and, particularly, the conflict between differing ideologies the paintings are not politicised. They reveal complexities in the usage of space and the upheaval in our common histories, yet they conceal truths and form no answer or alternative. The present is as fragmented as ever, the city is a site of riot, agression, totalitarian displays of power, poverty, terrorism and discontent. Even the gallery has been reconfigured, the walls angle in towards the centre for a more inclusive feel, as threatening as it is intimate.

In attempting to read this exhibition via symbols and imagery patterns we recognise (city maps, architectural plans, weather patterns, landscapes, written code…) we are missing the point. The paintings reflect our community back at us, in both a local and global sense, and as such are too vast and chaotic to ever be cohesive in this way. This is a strong and compelling display.

Julie Mehretu, A Painting in Four Parts (2012), on display here at dOCUMENTA (13)

Julie Mehretu, A Painting in Four Parts (2012), on display here at dOCUMENTA (13)

Curated by Douglas Fogle. On display until 7th July 2013.


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