Tracing the City Julie Mehretus’ Grey Area for the Deutsche Guggenheim

Tracing the City
Julie Mehretus’ Grey Area for the Deutsche Guggenheim

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The term gray area speaks to a condition of indeterminacy, a liminal state in which something is not clearly defined or perhaps impossible to define. Things are neither black nor white, right nor wrong, and in the best of cases, the phrase describes a situation that remains open for discussion. 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. For the suite of paintings she has produced for the Deutsche Guggenheim exhibition, the fifteenth in its acclaimed series of commissions, Mehretu also explores the theme of the ruin as an indicator of transformation. These remnants of the past serve to commemorate events but also highlight developments in the present. Mehretu sometimes refers to actual sites of ruin, decay, or destruction in these paintings. At other times she creates the dissolution in the picture herself as she layers drawings such that they obfuscate one another.

Berliner Plätze (2008–09) most clearly captures a specific setting, as referenced in the title and line drawings derived from photographs of late-19th-century Wilhelminian architecture. Yet the dense layering of lines obscures the individual buildings, creating a kaleidoscopic composition of line that destabilizes the viewer’s gaze. Created by projecting historical photos of Berlin onto a canvas and outlining the structural details of the architectural facades, this painting demonstrates the role of photography in Mehretu’s work. The layered imagery suggests double or multiple exposure; the reflections in the upper regions of the canvas recall the inversion of a landscape made by a camera obscura. One might recognize a structure or have a fleeting impression of a familiar locale, but these chimeras quickly slip back into the ethereal world depicted on the canvas. The composition also captures the unsettling nature of the urban experience where block after block of repetitive facades mask the individual lives that are played out behind them—one is surrounded yet often isolated. The individual’s relationship to architecture has long interested Mehretu, who typically interweaves aspects of modernist architecture, city plans, and public spaces such as airports and stadiums into her compositions.

The painting Fragment (2008–09) also captures parts of the urban experience. Layering a variety of streetscapes, the painting explores how city planning frames one’s objective perspective as well as subjective experience of a city. The gestural markings on the surface seem to illustrate Michel de Certeau’s L’invention du quotidien (The Practice of Everyday Life, 1980), which

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