Julie Mehretu’s biography reads a bit like an atlas. She was born in Ethiopia, raised in Michigan, educated in Senegal and Rhode Island, and now lives in New York. It is no surprise, then, that her work incorporates the dynamic visual vocabulary of maps, urban-planning grids, and architectural forms as it alternates between historical narratives and fictional landscapes. One of the artists featured in the Walker’s 2001 exhibition Painting at the Edge of the World, Mehretu creates beautifully layered paintings that combine abstract forms with the familiar, such as the Roman Coliseum and floor plans from international airports. This exhibition features nine newly commissioned, large-scale paintings and concludes her yearlong artist residency at the Walker.
Mehretu combines a personal language of signs and symbols with architectural imagery to create her elaborate semi-abstractions. Simultaneously engaged with the formal concerns of color and line and the social concerns of power, history, globalism, and personal narrative, she is interested in “the multifaceted layers of place, space, and time that impact the formation of personal and communal identity.” The underlying structure of her work consists of socially charged public spaces—government buildings, museums, stadiums, schools, and airports—drawn in the form of maps and diagrams. She inscribes her own narrative into these decontextualized, highly controlled spaces through the layering of personal markings. Mehretu achieves an effect of compositional maelstrom, as elements advance and recede within the graphically ambiguous spaces. With paintings that blur the line between figuration and abstraction while constantly referencing the world around us, she creates perfect metaphors for the increasingly interconnected and complex character of the 21st century.
Mehretu was the recipient of the 2001 Penny McCall Award. Her work has been included in Greater New York, P.S.1 Contemporary Arts Center, New York (2000), and she has participated in numerous group exhibitions, including one at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson (2000). Most recently, her work has appeared in Free Style at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2001); The Americans at the Barbican Gallery in London (2001); the Busan Biennale in Korea (2002); the 8th Baltic Triennial in Vilnius, Lithuania (2002); and Drawing Now: Eight Propositions (2002) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.