JMehretuMogamma2Julie Mehretu, Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts): Part II, 2012, Ink and acrylic on canvas, 15 x 12 feet
Collection of High Museum of Art

I decided to write about Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts): Part II by Julie Mehretu. Although I’ve followed her work for a while, it has become the piece of hers I have seen in situ the most. To write about a painting from a painter’s perspective, I would ideally be looking right at it while I wrote, and not at a photograph or an image on a screen. I should say, the other three parts of Mogamma I have only seen as photographic representations. Part II is at the High Museum in Atlanta, in a very large room where there is a nice place to sit down and view the painting.

I first became aware of Julie Mehretu’s work after I left New York for LA in 2002. At the time I was looking for a way to concretize conceptual and representational information as an abstraction. I was drawing on my experiences in NYC when I worked as a bike messenger. In the course of a day, I would encounter many perspectives and transparencies to the civic structure while traversing the thresholds of buildings and seeing the map of the city take different forms in my mind each time I walked out onto the street. I was a tiny fleshy part of many weird systems of power: global finance, insurance, fashion, advertising, the dot com boom and bust, among others. There were moments of poetry, boredom, and fear. Sometimes the same song played out of the window of each car and truck that crawled through midtown {in my mind it’s Doo-Wop (that thing) by Lauryn Hill in the summer of 1998}. As I wound through the gridlock on my way up Sixth Avenue, each set of speakers would connect with the next, everyone on the same station, forming the whole song of out of fragments. Even as I wanted to avoid direct references to bicycles and NYC in my work, I was interested in complex spaces, and a sense of speed and motion, moments of awkward beauty. I wanted the experience of viewing the work to feel like the subject matter – the surface layered with chaotic states and feats of brinksmanship.

From my first introduction to Mehretu’s work, I was struck by its speed and multiplicity of transparent perspectives. The paintings gave the sensation of lives lived in multiple locations, the architecture of power, and the actions of people against the background of civic structures of control. And she was doing it with abstraction, but something beyond the grid of modernism. It was a generative approach, and one from which I internalized much about how painting can function. Looking at her work certainly contributed to my desire to have a painting define its own conditions within its frame and produce its own climate, rather than arranging forms based on composition. It also helped me to see the way in which signifiers could be interpreted formally so that they became abstractions, yet held their signification. The form of the signifier was shifted using scale, orientation, position, direction, and color to become a parallel iteration of the conceptual motivation for using the signifier in the first place (for example, the temporary status of architectures of power she describes using layered line drawings of transparent architectural facades).

13851 2MehretuDetail2aJulie Mehretu, Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts): Part II, (Detail), Image courtesy of the High Museum of Art

When we look, we attend to what we’re seeing with our body, vision, intellect, emotion and the blended strings of a thousand different things inside us that get plucked by things outside of us. I respond to Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts): Part II in a corporeal way on account of its scale, of course (about 15 by 12 feet), but also the way the body is continually positioned and re-positioned by the multiplicity of perspectival systems in the work. It has all the visual dynamism and boggling complexity we expect from one of Mehretu’s pieces. There is an emotional heart to the turbulence of the picture, and the subject matter is fraught with complicated emotions. The piece is named after the main government building in Tahrir Square in Cairo, painted a year after the Egyptian revolution that was a part of the Arab Spring of 2011. And, reason and deliberation are also engaged; there is an encouragement of analysis by the diagrammatic spaces and application of color and graphic lines. These things are at odds; there is a friction in describing events like this, the experience of which would be so clearly charged with feelings, noise, exposure, and color, as graphic and gestural lines in black (mostly) on an exquisite milky background. This contrast is a conceptual pivot point for analysis, digression, projection, and prediction. It heightens, I would say, one of the things painting is very good at doing — describing the paradox of containing time in a way that seems removed and timeless.

The edges of our perceptual fields are always changing. We could be looking down a road through the rain, extending our view a hundred feet; or staring at some scrambled eggs at close range as we talk on the phone, and then draw back within ourselves to pay attention to some thought in our minds that the smell of cooking eggs or rain on the road has conjured. In this way we are always shifting perspective, attending to multiple fronts of sensation, emotion, memory, and reason simultaneously. A painting with edges like Mogamma frames and directs the perceptual field into a charged and focused space, intensifying it. Because the painting has illusionistic space, there is another layer of processing that goes into traversing the image, and with that comes a brilliant array of opportunities to connect perception to ideas via feelings. An example of this is how the colored lines occasionally “bend” into one of the satin milky glazes, and become intersections between layers of information. The line starts as a verb, then becomes an emotional rush of freedom from some constraint, and then a bridge to another layer of a complicated maelstrom of signification.

Approaching Mogamma from a good distance, there is a kinetic density in the top half of the painting that dissipates in the lower half. The ground is layered milky-white acrylic and the majority of the marks are black ink or acrylic. Within this overall condition we find the motifs and structures Mehretu is well known for: a series of colorful hard-edge arcing lines with light relief and consistent width that seem to respond to the conditions of the tempest in the picture. There’s evidence at their edge that they’ve been taped and sprayed for variegated color. Upon closer inspection, a tangle of systems is immediately apparent, mostly consisting of fine line drawings of architecture and such structural details as could be found in a public square (in addition to the Mogamma, other details are drawn from buildings in Tripoli and Cairo). There are also solid black squares and dot patterns. The marks that make up the turbulence are different though: they are scores of discreet gestures. These marks have a great quality that I love in the amassing of expressive marks: no matter how similar the reasons for applying strokes each time, every gesture is unique. One could say they are suggestive of people, their speech, their complex voices.

Once we enter the picture, we are transported simultaneously to more than one place. The topic is self-expression and power within the conceptual and physical spaces of the public square. Although this work is directly inspired by the events of the Arab Spring, these are subjects we hold in common. I think one of the questions that is posed with this work is under what conditions does the speech align? The representation is of simultaneous events occurring in a network whose constituents are represented by gestural marks: protagonistic, brushy, and calligraphic. The perspective we are given also feels distant and contains a stretch of time and place with literal, semi-opaque layers that obfuscate the details. These details lead me to thoughts like: political movements are based on organizing, struggle, and conscience, but they need the right conditions to be successful and many of those conditions are unknown to those engaged in the struggle. There is an element of randomness in the overall condition of this picture and what it reveals to and conceals from us that is indicative of the complexity and opacity of an event like a revolution.

Up close, some of the individual drawings of buildings can be teased out and seen partially as individual structures, especially at eye level. As you look up though, they simply get too dense and too complicated to parse, to the point of being bewildering and resistant to logic. I’d say the top four feet, where the painting gives over to stormy eddies of gesture, is really too far away to see in the same way as the rest of the painting. This is another interesting window into the piece’s conceptual structure that is unavailable in a jpeg that can be enlarged and examined; there is an opacity that takes over in the midst of all the transparency when I am overwhelmed by the density of information. Finally, a painting with so many references to architecture can’t help but connect to the surrounding architecture where it resides.

ceilingCeiling at the High Museum, Atlanta Georgia

As I gaze up into the top third of the painting, I can’t help considering the distinctive ceiling of the High Museum, with its evenly spaced circular apertures to the sky. This is an exit out of the picture, but the language of the painting forms a ligament to the edifice, connecting the pictorial, conceptual, and physical spaces through the established language of color and form in the painting. The significance is to complicate the architectures outside the picture the way they are complicated inside it. The way this painting engages multiple varieties of space makes looking at it a continually rewarding experience. It repays the act of looking with rigor and depth.

fancydancer800Benjamin Britton, Fancy Dancer, 2014, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 90 x 82 inches