From hurricanes to explosions, the visual metaphors conjured by Julie Mehretu's monumental abstract works are always defined by spectacular dynamism. So on the one hand, the title given to her exhibition of new canvases commissioned by Deutsche Bank at the Guggenheim, Grey Matter (through October 6), does significant disservice to the visual force of her work. On the other hand, it speaks to the middle-ground she continually explores, a surprising balance she manages to sustain between the various opposing forces that structure her work: abstraction and figuration, depth and flatness, production and destruction, precision and expressionism, fullness and the void. Mehretu's compositions depict the most spectacular gray areas you'll ever see.
And certainly, the six recent pieces featured in this exhibition, all of which are 10 feet tall and 14 feet wide, are superb, each remarkably distinct and yet, taken as a group, indicators of promising new directions in Mehretu's oeuvre. The most notable of these are her experimentations with more gestural black ink marks, and their subsequent erasure, simultaneously as a formal strategy of scraping, blurring and obscuring the marks on her canvases, and for the consequent symbolic qualities of absence, lack, loss and ghostly substance. (That these pieces are hanging alongside the Guggenheim's major group exhibition, Haunted, seems very appropriate.)
Though this eerie non-presence figures in all the new works, it's the dominant feature of the show's two most somber pieces. "Believer's Palace" (2008-09), named after Saddam Hussein's Baghdad compound, is sparse and diffuse, a flattened landscape smoldering with scraped and smeared ink marks that evoke fires and explosions, but also concealed and erased information, places wiped off the map. Indeed, the line drawings that always provide the first layer in Mehretu's multi-level compositions are at their most bleak and horizontal here, the typical build-up of architectural forms and abstract structures conspicuously absent from this scorched landscape. The few fragments of buildings include line drawings based on photos of the partially destroyed Baghdad palace of the title, and the gnarled steel beams and concrete piles of the World Trade Center wreckage. Whereas she often uses concentrations of shapes and strong diagonals to focus our vision on a central point or along a major vector, "Believer's Palace" is as strategically de-centered as a canvas from Mondrian's neosplastic period. The only prominent, strong straight line amidst the dissolving and slackened ink shapes is a sharp angle just below the center of the composition that doesn't offer any perspectival guidance, but violently truncates the canvas. This may be the most overtly political and least optimistic piece of Mehretu's career.
At the opposite end of the chapel-like wing where all the pieces are hung—tightly enough to convey a sense of immersion and sanctuary but with room to take each in on its own—"Notations" (2009) is much fuller and completely dominated by ink marks and erasures. Its thick clouds of smoke all but obscure any architectural lines and abstract forms, sweeping across the canvas from the right to the top-left corner, as if being dispersed by a powerful wind. The sense of smoke rising over an urban battleground becomes even more acute as some of the scraped ink marks begin to resemble graffiti, their swirling lines suggesting hastily scrawled messages on the walls of contested city streets, the "Notations" of the title.
Other pieces in Grey Area, though often similarly sparse, are more typical of the unique aesthetic language Mehretu has developed over the course of her 15-year career. But even the most characteristic composition, "Middle Grey" (2007-09), a swirling, hyperdynamic cluster bomb of colorful strips of paper, cloud-like acrylic forms, thick lines, superimposed architectural details and monochrome dots and stripes, is ultimately dominated by the stark black flocks, nets and rivulets of ink marks. These are only missing from "Berliner Plätze" (2008-09, detail above), whose title seems to echo "Believer's Palace," and which consists almost exclusively of architectural line drawings. Based on the superimposed periods and styles of buildings in Berlin, where Mehretu lived while working on this series, the hill-shaped formation of grids evokes the delirious excess of the Tower of Babel or, indeed, Rem Koolhaas's Delirious New York (1978), an impression accentuated upon closer inspection, where many of the structures turn out to be drawn upside-down. The historical process of urban rebuilding and quilting depicted in that canvas stands in stark contrast to the sudden and total architectural erasures of "Believer's Palace," returning us to the spectacular tensions that continually manifest themselves in new ways throughout Mehretu's career. She's as much concerned with the spectacle of destruction in our accelerated contemporary life-cycle as the spaces for new creativity that it continually opens up. The emphasis on erasure and ephemeral smoke-like forms in this recent series strives toward a middle-ground between an obliterating blackness and the emptiness of total blankness. Maybe Gray Area is a good title after all.
(images: courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, copyright Julie Mehretu)