Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Julie Mehretu's "City Sitings" at The DIA

City Sitings co-curator Becky Hart and Julie
photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Yesterday I had the opportunity of visiting Julie Mehretu's show, City Sitings, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and it was a memorable experience for two reasons. First, the show is simply awesome, with 13 paintings including the splendid Stadia I, II, III (2004), and the stunning 10'x16' 2007 version of her signal work, Black City (she created four new works for the DIA show, which travels to the Williams College Museum of Art this spring and to North Carolina Museum of Art in the fall). Her mastery of the monumental scale in the tradition of modernist work, and her insinuation of perspectival space through multilayering of shapes of color and architectonic lines, her facility with combining gestural drawings that sometimes remind you of the sketches of Leonardo and hard mechanical lines that could have come straight from the Engineer's draftsbook, as well as her incredible synthesis of abstract non-objective imagery and iconic signs make the encounter with her work a breathtaking experience. The viewer becomes like a fazed archaeologist visually peeling through layers of time, marks and symbolisms. Add to that; it is not often these days that you see a painting and wonder about the facture, "how the hell did she do that?"

Second, the fact that you enter the City Sitings galleries through the court where Diego Rivera painted what must rank among the greatest murals ever painted (Detroit Industry, 1932-33), forces you to compare the powerful illustrativity of Rivera, and the poetic abstractions of Mehretu's monumental paintings, and I must say that the younger artist comes out looking really good whereas most contemporary artists' work would have been mauled, squashed, asphyxiated by proximity to the muscular power of Rivera mural. As a young artist in Nigeria years ago, I admired Rivera's mural (which I had seen only in reproduction) and even was influenced by it when I was commissioned to paint a mural at the Science and Technology Center at the University of Nigeria. To finally see the real thing was almost like a religious experience. And to step from the Rivera Court into Mehretu's show was, how shall I put it, pure phenomenological drama.

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