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Avante-garde gestures

While dealing with issues of spatial politics, Julie Mehretu’s architecturally layered paintings come with a set of unresolved references and expectations, writes Marko Jobst

The man I am watching is in his late sixties, early seventies, perhaps, with long silver hair and a carefully tied scarf around his neck. He touches the gallery walls, brushes his palm against the pristine surfaces, taps them at various heights; he stands close to one of the canvases and rubs his finger lightly against the frame then crouches and repeats the same gesture on the floor. He walks to the next room and I follow, almost expecting – dreading – to see him mark one of the paintings with the pen he is holding in his hand. He steps close to the largest canvas, raises his finger and taps the wall several times. Then he walks away.

Artist? Architect? Obsessive-compulsive? Whatever the case, there is something strangely apt in this series of gestures when seen alongside one of Julie Mehretu’s canvases, exhibited at White Cube Bermondsey as part of the exhibition Liminal Squared. The paintings are covered in layer upon layer of intricate architectural drawing, executed mostly in black ink and obscured, in places even obliterated, by quick flicks of a painterly hand. It is as if a swarm of nervous gestures descended on the certainty of architectural drawing, to irritate, question its status, render it dynamic, yet decidedly abstract.

This is Mehretu’s first solo show in the UK, which is perhaps surprising considering her steady rise over the past decade. The artist has consistently used architectural drawing in her canvases, which is seldom seen in contemporary art to such an extent. Born in Ethiopia, educated in the United States and now based in New York, for the White Cube exhibition Mehretu collaborated with David Adjaye on the design for the final gallery space. In it, the large canvases of the Mogamma cycle open up to the viewer in an almost temple-like, symmetrical arrangement. Mogamma means ‘collective’ in Arabic and it is taken from the name of a government building in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. This is clearly Mehretu’s most overtly political work to date: the artist claims her use of architectural drawing comes out of a concern with spatial politics – and what better or more timely inspiration than the Arab Spring?

But to an architect, this kind of art already comes with a set of references and expectations. It is hard to look at Mehretu’s canvases and not think of Zaha Hadid’s early paintings. In the engaging The Art-Architecture Complex,Hal Foster traces the way the 20th-century avant-garde keep resurfacing in contemporary art and architecture, using Hadid’s paintings as an example of the relationship between architecture and its various representations. We see a similar set of references in Mehretu: Suprematism and Malevich, Constructivism, Futurism and hints of Expressionism, the usual suspects in any avant-garde revisionism. Foster argues that Hadid’s reiteration of the initially deeply political avant-garde ended up blunting its critical edge. Similarly, it is at the level of intended political engagement that Mehretu’s work falls short.

There is a long history of critique of traditional architectural drawing techniques, both as modes of representation that privilege the eye and as diagrams of power. The staple examples remain Michel Foucault’s take on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and Henri Lefebvre’s critique of architectural representation as dependent on a homogenised notion of space, bleached of all social and economic contexts. Little of this seems to filter into the formal play of Mehretu’s paintings, despite the destabilisation of the clarity of architectural drawing created through layering.

The paintings are unquestionably beautiful, but whether they are as politically and critically charged as the title of the most recent work implies is less clear. Mehretu’s move from gallery space to the Goldman Sachs lobby for a 2010 mural in Manhattan also makes you wonder about the reach of the work’s implied criticality – when it so overtly participates in the power structures it purports to critique.

Adjaye’s contribution adds an interesting angle to all of this: the gallery space is organised in a distinctly symmetrical, ordered and balanced manner. As such, it allows for the content of Mehretu’s paintings to come to the fore in all their majesty and visual exuberance, while still fragmenting the views inside the typical ‘white cube’ and allowing the visitor to drift around the canvases, into the metaphorical dark spaces behind them. But despite the interesting dialogue this creates with the paintings Mehretu’s neo-avant-garde gestures remain framed in a very traditional way.

The most striking thing about this exhibition then is the extent to which such work acquires broader cultural value when presented as fine art, yet subversions of classical architectural representation have been staple in the discipline for at least half a century now – not to mention what can be seen in the various end of year shows in some of the more adventurous schools of architecture. The exhibition is well worth a visit, but it might make you wonder why we don’t see more architectural drawing exhibited as the cutting-edge art that it often is.

  • Marko Jobst is a senior lecturer at Greenwich University School of Architecture, Design and Construction

Julie Mehretu Liminal Squared is on at the White Cube Bermondsey until 7 July


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