NEW YORK — One usually encounters the work of Julie Mehretu in contemporary art museums or galleries alongside that of other artists, and it is almost always the most interesting piece on view. Other artists have ideas, make statements, issue warnings or crack jokes, and their work is consumed rather like we solve puzzles: Look for a key, a clue or the code and, voilà.
But Mehretu’s pieces are arresting, stopping you and drawing you in. The paintings are both monumental and explosive, with shimmering surfaces that suggest three-dimensional depth. They are made in layers that show through one another, including detailed architectural renderings and geometric cityscapes, shards of color, rotating planes and careening lines, thickets of mechanical foliage, and smudges of smoke, fog or smog. Their size precludes seeing them in a glance, and their profusion of detail precludes comprehending them in an instant.
They are exercises in a contemporary idea of the sublime, which may explain why the Whitney Museum of American Art’s midcareer survey of Mehretu’s work, including about 30 paintings and 40 drawings, is exhausting, exhilarating and perhaps a little frustrating. Any one Mehretu painting does an enormous amount of work; but when juxtaposed with one another, even in the capacious galleries of the Whitney, their monumentality doesn’t suggest a journey or a narrative. The experience becomes repetitive rather than cumulative.
Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1970, and came to the United States in 1977. Her mother was an American and former Peace Corps worker, her father from Ethiopia and a professor of economic geography who later taught at Michigan State University, and she studied at Kalamazoo College and the Rhode Island School of Design. The earliest of her works on view, drawings made in 1996, suggest an intense mental doodling, thinking with a pencil, inventing personal glyphs and idiosyncratic ways to chart, measure and map private systems for giving order to the world. Within a very few years, these same energies are magnified, formalized and polished into fully mature pieces that are thrilling to behold.
Mehretu came of age when intellectual life, especially in the United States, was preoccupied with increasingly complex forms of determinism. The old debate about whether we are born with some essential identity, or are merely a product of outside forces, was over. The verdict: We are no more than the impress of the world. And so people who wanted to understand themselves and the world that made them struggled to make sense of an enormously complex web of social, political, economic and scientific forces.
It was natural, if you grappled with these ideas, to look inward and see not a coherent self, but a confusion of memories, emotions, primal stimuli and reaction; and to look outward and see something like a giant meteorological map of the universe, with some things fixed and immovable, but buffeted by swirling forces, violence, cosmic energies and ideology.
How do you make sense of existence if neither the inner life nor the world at large is comprehensible, if nothing can be pinned down long enough to trace its chains of cause and effect? No artist has done a better job of painting a picture of that world, and our place in it, than Julie Mehretu.
But her renderings of it aren’t, in any sense, a likeness. She doesn’t create pictures of what that world looks like but something far more complex. Painters of the sublime in the 18th century sought not to capture the exact details of vistas that are overwhelmingly vast or powerful, but rather the emotions we feel when we confront these things. When Claude-Joseph Vernet painted a shipwreck in 1772, he captured the sublime not through a precise rendering of a stormy seascape, but rather through the terror of people at the mercy of a tempest.
Mehretu maps the contemporary sublime — a mental, cultural and political landscape of terrifying confusion — by charting her own reactions to it. She writes and erases, generating visual data only to suppress it; she renders the city in ideal form then interleaves those renderings with historical snapshots and projections of the future; she builds up order and then sets it in motion, and suddenly grids and graphs take flight, spinning in a funnel cloud that lays waste to any idea of fixed meaning.
Somehow, this transcends a gesture that could be relatively simple and even banal. A lesser artist might render disorder by doing violence to the surface of a work. Paint a picture then slash it, or smudge it or shoot it with a gun. Mehretu renders the inevitable disorder of our world, including our inner lives, in a way that always feels orderly and intentional. Her paintings are worked over and meticulous, condensing the artist’s labor — and that of those who assist her — into something like scrimshaw, needlework or the lattice stone screens of Mughal architecture.
All of this makes us think about time and temporality. Time is congealed in the making of any work of art, but especially so in works as complex as the multiple panels of the 2012 “Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts)” and “The Seven Acts of Mercy” from 2004. But Mehretu’s pieces suggest time in other ways, as well. As when we listen to music, when we look at her work we become keenly aware of how some things happen simultaneously, while others are perceived in series. The moment a work of art makes you aware of time, it opens a giant playground for the mind because time is, in itself, incomprehensible. We grasp for metaphors or analogues, such as history and memory, or growth and decay or revolution and retrenchment.
The catalogue for the Whitney show makes a blunt and misguided attempt to capture some of this “too muchness” of time and the world by reproducing images from Mehretu’s visual files as a comment on her mostly abstract works. These include political fliers, postcards, street photography, and pictures of iconic buildings, historical events and disasters. Is this to insulate her abstract paintings from the accusation that they aren’t sufficiently political or socially engaged? Or is it to suggest that all these things are somehow “in” Mehretu’s work, when, in fact, her work is about how we perceive the world, not the world itself (as if such a thing existed)?
It’s an unfortunate choice, given the fine line between admiration for Mehretu’s ambition and impatience with her return to the same ideas, techniques and materials. When it comes to the sublime, she is more hedgehog than fox, grasping something far larger than other artists would dare attempt, but returning to it with almost obsessive energy, again and again. To suggest that these monumental works are somehow giant ciphers for political ideology does the artist and her work a disservice.
Her work is meant to be experienced, not decoded. And that makes it difficult to see a lot of her pieces in a single show, such as this one. There are good reasons, beyond geography, that you wouldn’t want to see the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon and the Eiffel Tower on the same afternoon. The same goes for the work of Mehretu.
Julie Mehretu is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through Aug. 8. For more information visit www.whitney.org.