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Julie Mehretu: Politicized Landscapes

Video by Art21. Episode #252: Shown working on two site-specific paintings for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), Julie Mehretu recontextualizes the history of American landscape painting by merging its sublime imagery with the harsh realities not depicted. "What does it mean to paint a landscape and be an artist in this political moment?" she asks from the decommissioned Harlem church used as her studio for the project.

Referencing the ways that landscapes have been politicized through historical events—from the violent expansion of the American West, colonialism, war, and abolition, through to more recent race riots and social protests—Mehretu began by combining photographs from these events with nineteenth-century landscape paintings. Abstracting and digitizing the blended forms, she printed the resulting images on two monumental canvases, each spanning more than eight hundred square feet. Over these underpaintings, Mehretu adds gestural, calligraphic brush strokes before screen printing an additional, complicating layer of pixelated images. Collaborator Jason Moran, a composer and jazz pianist, joins Mehretu in the studio to create a musical arrangement inspired by her improvisational process of markings and erasure.

Through their respective practices, the two artists create new visual and auditory languages in the hopes of processing the complex history that brought us to our present moment. As Mehretu explains, the paintings become "visual neologisms," that combine the work and inventions of past artists, "to address when language isn't enough."

The paintings, titled "HOWL, eon (I, II)" (2017), are currently on view in the SFMOMA atrium.

Julie Mehretu's paintings and drawings refer to elements of mapping and architecture, achieving a calligraphic complexity that resembles turbulent atmospheres and dense social networks. Architectural renderings and aerial views of urban grids enter the work as fragments, losing their real-world specificity and challenging narrow geographic and cultural readings. The paintings' wax-like surfaces—built up over weeks and months in thin translucent layers—have a luminous warmth and spatial depth, with formal qualities of light and space made all the more complex by Mehretu's delicate depictions of fire, explosions, and perspectives in both two and three dimensions. Her works engage the history of nonobjective art—from Constructivism to Futurism—posing contemporary questions about the relationship between utopian impulses and abstraction.

Learn more about the artist at: https://art21.org/artist/julie-mehretu/

CREDITS | Producer: Ian Forster. Interview: Ian Forster. Editor: Morgan Riles. Camera: John Marton. Sound: Michael Kelly. Artwork Courtesy: Julie Mehretu, Marian Goodman Gallery & SFMOMA. Music: Jason Moran & Jamo Publishing (SESAC). Additional Footage Courtesy: SFMOMA. Special Thanks: Sarah Rentz, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum & Damien Young. "Extended Play" is supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; Art21 Contemporary Council; and by individual contributors.
Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

[Julie Mehretu: Politicized Landscapes] There is no such thing as just "landscape". The actual landscape is politicized through the events that take place on it. And I don't think it's possible for me, in general, to ever think about the American landscape without thinking about the colonial history-- and the colonial violence-- of that narrative. The abolitionist movement. The Civil War. The move towards emancipation. All of these social dynamics that are part of that narrative, we don't really talk about in regards to American landscape paintings. And so, what does it mean to paint a landscape and try and be an artist in this political moment? The color in these paintings really came out of blurred photographs that were embedded inside of the underpaintings. The sirens and the flames of race riots was a way to embed the paintings with DNA so that I could respond from a deeper place. --I'm going to go upstairs and take a look. --Yeah, I'm excited! [LAUGHS] Marian Goodman contacted me, telling me that SFMOMA was interested in doing this commission before the new museum opened. I went several times to San Francisco to visit the museum. I was there, staring at this very cavernous, open space-- at these two walls. And I started to think about the national parks and the representations of American landscape painting. And, specifically, when I came back, I kept thinking about the Hudson River Valley School painters, like Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, Bierstadt-- because they really encapsulate that idea of going westward. I started to layer the blurred color images into these historic landscape paintings. Just prior to emancipation, Native Americans of the Sierras and the western frontiers were completely annihilated by this expansionist project. What was interesting was that aspect of both annihilation and then preservation shortly after can exist on the same geographic landscape. San Francisco then, as a site, became important because that was this destiny of going out west. [Jason Moran, composer and pianist] --[MEHRETU] How are you doing? Jason Moran wrote me after seeing some paintings and he talked about them as a score. And I was super interested in that. And so we started working together here in a very, very loose and open way. It's kind of an amazing thing to paint in a church. Everything kind of reverberates back into here, energy-wise-- consciousness-wise-- and everything that has taken place this year in my personal life, with my children, with what has happened politically. All of that is immersed in these paintings. [Electric piano plays] All of these brutal killings of Black people in this country-- and the Black body. The Trump-Hillary dynamic, it was disgusting to witness. There was something in that language that's visceral. When a person speaks so horrifically towards another being, that's deeply wrenching. The discomfort of being a person living and working in the United States is a place that, I think, these paintings were being made from. [Electric piano plays] [JASON MORAN] Every room defines one tone, and it's like the room tone. It's the tone that makes it resonate. And I started to find some of that in the note A-flat. I started to build around that, and then, every once in a while, look up and see where Julie was in her work. Then slowly, I started to look at my sheet of paper not as a place that had a start and a finish, but that all of it could be composed on different moments. --I made a little section where you were taking stuff away. [LAUGHS] --I made you a little part that's like, "I'm taking this away." [MEHRETU LAUGHS] [MORAN] America is a country still in the adolescent stage. It doesn't know how to deal with its emotions. [LAUGHS] It doesn't know how to deal with its history. It doesn't want to dig in the ground to know what artifacts are under it. And so, jazz, I always say, has been that form of music that's been the model of letting people know what's happening. It's always been like that. [Electric piano plays] And so we recorded the music because we should document the moment and also share the moment, too. [MEHRETU] I really try to think about painting in terms of the construction or making of an image. Dealing with things that we don't have proper language for. I kind of start to think of them as these visual neologisms. The neologism is there to address when language isn't enough. Through repetition of the mark, there's this desire of trying to invent something. At a certain point, I wanted to bring elements of the underpainting to the surface, so that it further complicated, spatially, how you were seeing these. When you're looking at these paintings, they're not graspable. There are moments where they reference Renaissance Ascension painting, and then other moments that feel digitized. At least for me, they're not something I feel like I can give any kind of articulation of what's happening fully. [Jazz music plays] I love California. There's this grandeur to the coast and the way the coast reaches the ocean. When you're driving through the Bay Area, it's just majestic. [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art] I feel like I have a hundred other paintings I want to make, because I've learned so much in making these. I'm not going to try and take a break or stop working. There's a lot of creative momentum in finishing these paintings. [Clapping and cheering] I have a lot of ideas that I want to investigate and I'm excited about that.