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Review: In ‘Julie Mehretu’ at LACMA, the world explodes on canvas. Grab a seat for the show

Julie Mehretu, "Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation," 2001, ink and acrylic on canvas.
Julie Mehretu, “Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation,” 2001, ink and acrylic on canvas.
(Erma Estwick)

In her best paintings, Julie Mehretu walks a tightrope.

On one side is consolidation, on the other is disintegration. Collapse is underway, coalescence strains. Schism and synthesis spar.

Thirty-five paintings and 39 works on paper dating from 1996 to the present constitute an engrossing mid-career retrospective for the Ethiopia-born, New York-based artist at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s the first solo show of Mehretu’s paintings in L.A. in 15 years, and the distinctive experience her work provides resonates with the soul-gnawing ethos of life today.

Faint, draftsman-like renderings of architectural fragments — stairways, curtain walls, steel skeletons, cladding panels — form a splintered foundation across an off-white painted ground in “Babel Unleashed.” Layered atop it are linear and geometric shapes in vivid blue, black and red, as well as pale pastel hues.

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Julie Mehretu, "Untitled 2," 2001, ink and acrylic on canvas
Julie Mehretu, “Untitled 2,” 2001, ink and acrylic on canvas.
(Tom Powel Imaging)

Mehretu’s layering and color-shifts let the space breathe while yielding a sense of digging through archaeological history. That archaeology includes a dig through art.

The teetering, cantilevered composition recalls the dramatic, early 1980s drawings and paintings made by architect Zaha Hadid for the Peak Leisure Club, an unbuilt project for Hong Kong. Mehretu’s selected shapes float in space, lodged somewhere between echoes of ancient Eastern calligraphy and early 20th century Russian Suprematist or Constructivist paintings by Kazimir Malevich or El Lissitzky.

Wide, curved, bold black lines gallop across the 7-foot canvas like fragments of the abstracted horseman in a Blue Rider painting by Wassily Kandinsky. Traditional figurative art was dashing toward radical abstraction in an avant-garde spiritual adventure.

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Swirling, feathery ribbons of line and clusters of billowy curves seem borrowed from the old scientific musings on water and clouds recorded in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. Like the Renaissance master, Mehretu has an evident fondness for the subtle power of the trapezoid, a shape that visually oscillates between two dimensional and flat and the illusion of a square tipping back in three-dimensional space.

A palpable tension rivets a viewer’s responsive concentration. Visual coherence cleaves and surety inevitably falls apart, grappling to pull knowledge back together to secure understanding — only to fall apart again.

“Babel Unleashed” was painted in 2001. From the start of a new millennium, the title’s biblical reference evokes hubris on a global scale. I don’t know whether it came before or after Sept. 11 of that fateful year, but it appears to mark a turning point.

Mehretu, now 49, was moving steadily in that direction for the previous five years, as attested by the scuttling, clustering, shattering abstract imagery in two small student works from 1996 that open the show. Bigger, vivifying paintings like “Untitled (Yellow With Ellipses)” and “Apropos,” both from 1998, enlarge the scope, their horizontality emphasizing a landscape orientation.

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Lines divide one work into aerial-view quadrants, like looking through a scope at a target or at an airplane’s flight instruments interpreting the world below. Scribbled walls in dull, vaguely institutional colors turn up in the other, introducing tangled urban graffiti. Inchoate aggression lurks in both.

It erupts in the show’s first knockout paintings — the monumental, mural-scale “Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation” (2001) and “Renegade Delirium” (2002). Buried within the surfeit of flying shards and inky scrawls of the latter, which are undergirded by what appear to be city planning diagrams, a jagged little cartoon blast like something excerpted from a Roy Lichtenstein Pop painting — pow! blam! — propels the art historical excavation into the present era.

Stadia II, 2004, ink and acrylic on canvas.
Julie Mehretu, “Stadia II,” 2004, ink and acrylic on canvas.
(Carnegie Museum of Art)

Mehretu’s expanding universe of sources is not just formal; tough subject matter is a spur. Included are topical traumas abundantly recorded in the daily press, from local murders to geopolitical travesties, from ethnic cleansing in Myanmar to catastrophes of climate change, from community street protests to obliterating wars. Paintings of stadiums, banners flying, invoke the latent violence churning within sporting conflicts and political rallies, whether at the Colosseum in ancient Rome or modern Exposition Park.

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Sometimes the data-mining goes a bit slack — most notably in “Berliner Plätze,” which evokes both the ruin and rebuilding of the German city through a dense network of overlapping renderings of Beaux-Arts building facades. (You see the city from the viewpoint of a cross-eyed bug, as if it were a shimmying, shaking photograph.) Paradoxically, the social stimulus is more powerful the less specific it is, pulling distress out of headlines and inserting it into the epic ruin of civilization at large.

Our electronically connected world is tearing us apart, a roiling disposition unfolding daily amid vast, invisible data streams mined on the internet. Mehretu interrupts inevitable decay and destruction, large or small, with an adamant, even stubborn determination to construct.

She further insists on grasping the megaphone of public rather than private speech. The almost uniformly large scale of her paintings, which can reach as much as 17 feet wide, associates itself with politically minded modern murals.

Whether Mehretu begins with a drawing or a digital collage of photographs, the pictorial information is subsumed within the material demands made by any painting: It must compel and convince. Never does a sense intrude of a composition being merely transferred from small sketch to big canvas. Fragments might be, but the artist is visibly at work.

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The show was ably organized by LACMA curator Christine Y. Kim and by Rujeko Hockley from New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, where it travels next summer. (Atlanta and Minneapolis will complete the national tour.) It’s installed in two sections, the largest on the third floor of the BCAM building and the other on the first floor, a serviceable if not optimal interruption.

Julie Mehretu, "Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson," 2016, ink and acrylic on canvas.
(Cathy Carver)

One curious — and perhaps instructive — feature is that neither LACMA nor the Whitney, according to their collection websites, owns a painting by the widely celebrated artist. Institutions commonly consider that a prerequisite when deciding to marshal resources for a career survey of a living artist. (Each does have in its collection an impression of Mehretu’s impressive “Epigraph, Damascus,” a monumental, six-panel photogravure, etching and aquatint print.) Putting into fuller context the work of an artist to which a museum has made a commitment through acquisition is a fundamental task.

Perhaps this disjunction speaks of the outsize domination of today’s market for contemporary art, which corrals the work of some artists into an asset class, like stocks or real estate. (Mehretu’s auction record is in the mid-seven figures.) Museums are left languishing.

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Mehretu’s achievement surely merits the full analysis of a mid-career survey. Are there other paintings by other artists that more succinctly embody the grinding, strife-torn experience of our digitally enmeshed world — which is still newly secured, still raw? Not that I know of. This show matters.

‘Julie Mehretu’

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

When: Through March 22 (first floor) and May 17 (third floor). Closed Wednesdays

Admission: $10-$25 (see website for discounts and free periods)

Info: (310) 857-6000, www.lacma.org


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