The term “grey area” speaks to a condition of indeterminacy, a liminal state in which something is not clearly defined or is perhaps impossible to define. Julie Mehretu adapts such enigmatic circumstances as a tool to engage the viewer in her complex compositions of meticulously drawn mechanical renderings, spontaneous gestural markings, and colorful interjections. Whether capturing specific settings or the general tenor of the urban experience, such as in Berliner Plätze (2008–09) and Fragment (2008–09) respectively, Mehretu’s paintings evoke the psychogeography of the city and the effects of the built environment on individuals while at the same time contemplating the past and the surviving traces of lived history.
Believer's Palace (detail), 2008-09
© Julie Mehretu
Berlin plays a significant role in the investigation of memory and the urban experience in the Grey Area suite, first conceived during a residency at the American Academy in Berlin in 2007. Walking through the city, where one still encounters the vestiges of war, an American such as Mehretu might recall that such destruction is currently perpetrated in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq; to see memories preserved after decades of recovery is a poignant reminder of conflicts from which the American public has been carefully screened. Believer’s Palace (2008–09), referencing the partially destroyed palace that sat atop Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad bunker, addresses these current events directly. This painting, along with Atlantic Wall (2008–09), which renders the interiors of bunkers built by Germany along the Western European coastline in World War II, conjures the physical aftermath of war.
Portrait Julie Mehretu, March 2009
Photo: Mark Hanauer
© Julie Mehretu
Through Mehretu’s layering, erasure, and smudging of marks, structures seem to dissolve on the surface of the canvas, like a virtual rendering of a fading memory. As suggested by the title of the painting Middle Grey (2007–09), which designates the midpoint between the two extremes of black and white, the compositions often exist at a fulcrum where the work could either plunge into dense obscurity or almost disappear into an ethereal cloud of dust. Yet a remarkable sense of pictorial space always exists in Mehretu’s paintings, created not just by their layering but also by the contrasts inherent in them. Solid forms and precise line drawings underlie frenetic forces painted on the surface. These gestures in black acrylic can be detailed and precise or looser, like the quickly drafted scribbles in Notations (2009), to indicate atmosphere or set a mood.
The title of the painting Plover’s Wing (2009) poetically evokes one’s interaction with Mehretu’s works. The plover bird feigns a broken wing, pretending to be easy prey in order to distract predators from its young only to fly away just before being harmed. So too might one be deceived by a first impression of Mehretu’s art. What appears abstract from afar is replete with detailed drawings when viewed close up, but just as one is able to glean some bit of information by which a rendering might be identified, the work seems to vaporize into indeterminacy that compels the viewer to look again and again and again.