“We derive the impression that the artist is trying to regulate by conscious intent the nature of the emotion aroused. We are irritated by a feeling that he is manipulating materials to secure an effect decided upon in advance. The facets of the work are held together by some external force. The author, not the subject matter, is the arbiter.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way that I make art. Aesthetically, I find order and structure fascinating. A problem arises when that interest in order expands into a desire for control over every facet of the creative process and the subsequent experience of my work. I want to know ahead of time how a piece will turn out how my viewer’s will “read” it. When an artist starts with a message and stays on task, analyzing every element to be in as much control as possible over his audience, that is propaganda. Good art is made by those who are looking for truth and meaning, not those who already have all the answers. I want to have a posture of openness and humility as I work. In an undergraduate paper I once wrote, “art-making is a process of discovery and response,” a sentiment I’d like to hold on to. I could just make pretty pictures from a place of comfortable control, but the whole reason I make art is to learn and discover.
Mogamma II, Julie Mehretu, 2012, 180″x144″ (Be sure to click on image and scroll through the amazing complexity of the marks)
The above image is the second of Julie Mehretu’s Mogamma, A Painting in Four Parts. These four paintings were created around the time of the Arab Spring and consist of a complex web of gestural marks and vector lines overlaying technical wireframe drawings of Al-Mogamma (a government building in Tahir Square, Cairo). Mogamma is also the Arab word for “collective.”
All four paintings hung together to give you an idea of scale.
Like most art, Mehretu’s paintings diminish when not seen in person. Much of the meaning of her work lies in experiencing these complex images at their massive scale and being unable to take in their entirety at once. They read one way from a distance, but as the viewer approaches they must select a portion of the image to examine more closely. Because it is physically impossible to see everything at once, the viewer must slow down and allow their eye to explore and discover the painting. Each person will see something slightly different as no two people will examine it in quite the same way. As Mark Godfrey said, “viewers have to abandon the desire to fully master what they see.”
Mogamma II, detail
In writing about Mehretu’s work Richard Shiff said, “The culture is complex, contradictory, and commodious; for better or worse, it tolerates extremes of opposition, assimilating diverse impulses, nevertheless avoiding collapse. To navigate a hyperculture of this sort requires a hyperimage, a perspective far more complex than a map of eighteenth-century trade routes…” I think what I find so fascinating about Mehretu’s work is the way in which her paintings function as hyperimages that juxtapose our perspective of chaotic experience with the suggestion of an underlying order. Her paintings are models and metaphors for a way of thinking about culture and reality.
Mogamma II, detail.
“I think architecture reflects the machinations of politics, and that’s why I am interested in it as a metaphor for those institutions. I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space, but about spaces of power, about ideas of power.” – Julie Mehretu