– Autumn/Winter 2006

Julie Mehretu's 'Perfect' Pictures

Peter Eleey

It is worth thinking about Julie Mehretu's paintings and drawings as perfect contemporary pictures - not because they necessarily are 'perfect' (whatever 'perfect' might mean), nor because Mehretu seeks such a quality (I suspect she does not), but because her achievement is predominantly celebrated on the basis of the virtuosity and thoroughness with which her pictures purportedly reflect the complexities of globalised existence.

If we take at face value the assertion that her paintings are indeed 'perfect metaphors for the increasingly interconnected and complex character of the 21st century', as Douglas Fogle described them on the occasion of her exhibition at the Walker Art Center in 2003, we can examine some of what seems to make Mehretu's work so compelling on this level of the 'perfect' metaphor (and also where this supposed perfection gives it cover).1 But perhaps more interestingly, this approach allows us to consider what our embrace of her work suggests about the state of spectatorial engagement more generally - and what we want a painting to be, or do.

If we adjudicate 'perfection' as something approaching 'completeness', Mehretu indeed seems tough to beat. The shortlist of subject matter claimed by the artist and her critics is vast: flight patterns, architecture of all varieties, city squares, airports, highways, subways, scrambled computer screens, the imagined millennium computer bug, computer games, family genealogies, armies, maps, comets, stairwells, stadiums, amphitheaters, smoke, bullets, blazes, explosions, implosions, graffiti, comics, skateboard graphics, tattoos, racing stripes, hot-rod flames, news photographs of riots and uprisings, upraised fists, the Enron scandal, the WTO, the UN, the Arab League, Civil War strategic maps and NFL game plans. Among art-historical references, we find cited Baroque engravings,

  1. Douglas Fogle, 'Putting the World into the World', Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting (exh. cat.), Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2003, p.6.

  2. Julie Mehretu and Olukemi Ilesanmi, 'Looking Back: Email Interview Between Julie Mehretu and Olukemi Ilesanmi', Ibid., p.13.

  3. 'This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.' Walter Benjamin, 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' (1940), Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Hannah Arendt (ed.), Harry Zohn (trans.), New York: Schoken Books, 1968, pp.257-584 .

  4. See Edward R. Tufte, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press, 1997, p.64 .

  5. D. Fogle, op. cit., p.5.

  6. Giacomo Bala, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912) and Pablo Picasso, Guitar Player (1910), respectively.

  7. Lawrence Chua, 'Julie Mehretu', Bomb Magazine, no.92, Spring 2005, pp.24-31.

  8. David Binkley and Kinsey Katchka in conversation with Julie Mehretu, 28 March 2003, www.nmafa.si.edu/exhibits/passages/mehretu-conversation.html, last accessed 4 June 2006. Emphasis my own.

  9. Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, Du Cubism, Paris: E. Figuière et cie, 1912. Cited in Robert Mark Antliff, 'Bergson and Cubism: A Reassessment', Art Journal, vol.47 no.4, Winter 1988, p.345.

  10. Hubert Damisch, Fenêtre jaune cadmium ou les dessous de la peinture, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984, p.71. Cited and translated in Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990, p.248 .

  11. L. Chua, op. cit.

  12. Paul Virilio, A Landscape of Events, Julie Rose (trans.), Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000, p.ix.

  13. Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy, Michael Degener (trans.), New York and London: Continuum, 2005, p.37.

  14. P. Virilio, A Landscape of Events, op. cit., p.39.

  15. P. Virilio, Negative Horizon, op. cit., p.37.

  16. Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, Julie Mehretu/MATRIX 211: Manifestation (exh. cat.), Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, 2004.

  17. Umberto Eco, 'The Politics of the Open Work' (1962), The Open Work, Boston: Harvard University Press, 1989, pp.22-23; cited in Claire Bishop, 'Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics', October, no.110, Fall 2004, p.62.

  18. While it does seem that a viewer's self-reflective capacity is diminished from 'inside' a given Tiravanija work (i.e. as participant), I do not mean to suggest that such a position necessarily precludes the possibility of seeing what the work reflects. Nevertheless, this dynamic complicates the question of 'active' versus 'passive' spectatorial conditions, since one can argue that the active participants (those 'inside' the work) are passive viewers (to the extent that they can view at all), limited by their position vis-á-vis the work itself.

  19. J. Mehretu and O. Ilesanmi, op. cit., p.14. Emphasis my own.

  20. W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1938, p.297.