A more cynical person might look at Julie Mehretu’s vast, intricate ruminations on the Arab Spring in her ‘Mogamma’ (2012) series of paintings as the co-opting of someone else’s political struggle for artistic gain. The interplay between political statement and artistic exploitation in these four huge canvases – whose title references the Al Mogamma government building in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – creates an uncomfortable narrative. But, thanks to the incredible complexity of her images and ideas, it works.
The paintings are staggeringly layered. Hundreds of digital architectural line drawings are messily overlayed and then covered in geometric shapes, pixelated forms and precise modernist lines. Thousands of tiny, obsessive marks dot and smudge the compositions, like the scurrying pawprints of an army of rats. These paintings are stunning collisions of digital and analogue, abstract and figurative marks, of machine-like precision and passionate free gestures.
The ideas behind each image are equally complex: the relationship between architecture and power; the layers of place and time in a globalised community; the messy distinction between the individual and society. The overwhelming visual density of the works is the physical embodiment of Mehretu’s view of modernity – where the personal and the political have to live side by side because everything is interconnected.
The joyous colours of her earlier works are all but gone, with sombre grey now dominating the few remaining dashes of yellow and blue. More recent works, such as ‘Emergent Algorithm’ and ‘Invisible Sun’ (both 2013), show Mehretu prioritising this monochromatic approach. These are stark, emotionally turbulent compositions. In ‘Being Higher I’ and ‘Being Higher II’ (2013), the architectural images are gone, leaving only harsh grey abstract shapes, fingerprints and hand marks. The images are far more personal than anything she’s done before. Tormented and powerfully overwrought, if this is what Mehretu is moving towards, she may become one of the greats of abstract painting.