Arena for Contemporary African, African-American and Caribbean Art

Julie Mehretu at the White Cube in London



Julie Mehretu: Sextant
White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, September 21 until November 3, 2018.

Sehkmet, 2001-2013






White Cube is pleased to present an exhibition of new work by Julie Mehretu at Mason’s Yard. Featuring large-scale paintings and etchings, the exhibition highlights Mehretu’s use of gestural abstraction as a conduit for evocative and charged emotion and intellectual enquiry.


Untitled, 2014

Glenn Ligon has described the artist’s work as ‘traversed by history […] grounded in urgent political and social questions while simultaneously troubling the limits of abstract painting.’[1] In these new paintings, which continue from the ‘Conjured Parts’ series begun in 2015, Mehretu employs a broad spectrum palette to create powerful, animated, complex canvases. Marking a continued departure from her earlier work which focused on a layered language of mapping and architectural detail, these paintings take the immediacy of a news photograph as their starting point. These include images of such recent pivotal junctures as the rallies of independence in Catalonia; the voracious wild fires of California; the violent white supremacy rally and counter rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina; the instantaneous outbreak of Muslim ban protests throughout the United States; and the Grenfell Tower fire in London. Beginning with a process of obscuration where the found image is blurred and manipulated through Photoshop, it is then airbrushed onto canvas as an abstract departure point. Reduced to a background haze of colour, each painting is then built up through an extensive, intricate layering process using screen printing, ink and acrylic marks which are drawn, painted, airbrushed or erased. The original image, now just a blur, is metaphorically nuanced and elliptical, existing as a ghostly background presence whose visible highlights and eruptions of colour on the canvas surface pronounce moments of action and possible shifts of axis. This confluence and dispersion of energetic and decisive marks is respondent to the varied histories the photographs invoke.
Less structured than previous work and characterised by their intensely animated and vital surfaces, Mehretu’s paintings suggest a suspended moment ripe with possibility, defining what Suzanne Cotter has identified as a ‘mobility’ inherent in her painterly language. Part of a continual state of becoming, where marks reliant on effacement and erasure relate to action, they allow for new thematic possibilities. As Cotter has written, they are ‘[…] fundamentally, about the individual within the complex social and political dynamics that inform the nature of the world in which we live.’[2] Urging the viewer to look, question and take time, Mehretu ignites the potential of painting to carry political significance, serving as an energising and motivational force that draws vital nerves and narrative lines with both the history of modernist abstraction as well as that of engaged political thought.

JulieMehretuMogamma, A Painting in Four Parts Part 1d

Mogamma, a painting in four parts, 2012

A new series of prints, made with master printmaker Case Hudson at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, are exuberantly colourful and large in scale, in part inspired by the artist’s recent visit to the Mogao caves in China. In these works, a multitude of varied black lines, marks and shapes overlaid on psychedelic backgrounds suggest a form of automatic writing that incorporates different tools and techniques. Conveying both the charged immediacy of political graffiti and the layers of scrawl and fly-posting that builds up in urban locales, they also reference mid-century abstraction; the poetic crescendo of their gestural profusion appearing contained only by the limits of the paper itself.


Cairo, 2013.

Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa in 1970 and lives and works in New York. She has exhibited widely including solo exhibitions at Serralves Museum, Porto and Centro Botín, Santander (2017); Gebre Kristos Desta Center, Addis Ababa and Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Deurle (2016); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2010); Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (2009); Detroit Institute of Art and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek (2007); MUSAC, Léon (2006); St Louis Art Museum (2005); REDCAT, Los Angeles and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (2004) and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2003).


Epigraph Damascus, 2016

In 2005 Mehretu was the recipient of the American Art Award from the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as the prestigious MacArthur Fellows Award. In 2015 she was awarded the US Department of State Medal of Arts Award. In 2017, a monumental two-part painting, ‘HOWL, eon (I, II)’ commissioned by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California was unveiled as a major, long-term installation in the lobby of the museum. Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge will host an exhibition of Mehretu works on paper presented alongside Louise Bourgeois Artist Rooms in January 2019. An upcoming survey co-organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum, New York, opens at LACMA in autumn 2019 and will tour to other major US venues throughout 2020.

[1] Glenn Ligon. ‘On the Ground’, Grey Paintings, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, 2017
[2] Suzanne Cotter. ‘The Alien Discontinuum: On Painting and Participating in the work of Julie Mehretu’, A Universal History of Everything and Nothing, Julie Mehretu, Serralves and Botin, 2017


Untitled, 2018

Julie Mehretu makes large-scale, gestural paintings that are built up through layers of acrylic paint on canvas overlaid with mark-making using pencil, pen, ink and thick streams of paint. Mehretu’s work conveys a layering and compression of time, space and place and a collapse of art historical references, from the dynamism of the Italian Futurists and the geometric abstraction of Malevich to the enveloping scale of Abstract Expressionist colour field painting. In her highly worked canvases, Mehretu creates new narratives using abstracted images of cities, histories, wars and geographies with a frenetic mark making that for the artist becomes a way of signifying social agency as well suggesting an unravelling of a personal biography.


Untitled, 2005

Mehretu’s points of departure are architecture and the city, particularly the accelerated, compressed and densely populated urban environments of the 21st Century. Her canvases overlay different architectural features such as columns, façades and porticoes with geographical schema such as charts, building plans and city maps and architectural renderings, seen from multiple perspectives, at once aerial, cross-section and isometric. Her paintings present a tornado of visual incident where gridded cities become fluid and flattened, like many layers of urban graffiti. Mehretu has described her rich canvases as “story maps of no location”, seeing them as pictures into an imagined, rather than actual reality. Through its cacophony of marks, her work seems to represent the speed of the modern city depicted, conversely, with the time-aged materials of pencil and paint. (texts WhiteCube)

(Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery New York)