Julie Mehretu

Author: Catherine de Zegher

Author: Catherine de Zegher


Julie Mehretu isan American artist who was born in 1970 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She studied at University Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar (1990–91), earned a BA from Kalamazoo College, Michigan (1992), and an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design, Providence (1997). She lives and works in New York City, NY and Berlin, Germany.

Julie Mehretu creates extremely large-scale acrylic paintings that refer to elements of architecture and mapping. Her work is often epic in proportions, with some pieces being as large as of 21 by 85 feet on canvas. The paintings are visually stunning, full of movement and an energy that seems to erupt and explode outward from a centrifugal force. These paintings are built using multiple layers of drawing with ink, pencil and acrylic paint. She pushes the boundaries between painting and drawing with her highly inventive and unique vocabulary of mark making. Swirling, flowing, erratic, combustible, bursting, choppy, staccato like marks, lines and symbols populate her work.

The focus and evolution of her studio practice comes from the language of drawing. In 1995 while in art school, Julie developed a personal visual language -- a system of marks and symbols that she uses in her work to this day.  She describes her visual language as an exploration that “goes back to the cellular level where language comes from” Laying down her individual marks in an indexical fashion, she reduced and deciphered the process until her glyph like forms became notational. Different artistic influences in her development are the Russian Constructivists, Kazimir Malevich, the Italian Futurists and Wassily Kandsinsky.  J.M.W. Turner’s skies and the atmosphere that he created in his paintings inspire her to paint forces like she senses in his work.

Julie’s rich vocabulary of symbols and glyphs remind me of the marks and lines in the etchings of Rembrandt. Mehretu’s mark making is also influenced by her experience with printmaking and Chinese calligraphy. She is also inspired by graffiti, video games and Japanese manga cartoons.

Julie recognized that one individual mark has a sense of power or social agency She describes: "the hand and mark create a ‘behaviour’ and that groups of similar marks can shift the surface of a picture by its behaviour depending on how they are drawn” for example: aggressive or passive; some groups or communities operate with one another or become devoured by each other. She feels her marks take on characteristics and in turn calls them “characters”. These characters and clusters of marks then needed a place to inhabit where they could behave, retaliate, be self-deterministic or battle with each other.

Looking to outside references, Mehretu typically begins a painting by layering her favoured source materials which usually consists of  detailed architectural plans or city maps. Her sources often incorporate schematic depictions of modern, historic or ancient buildings such as stadiums, military and industrial complexes, public spaces, airports, and financial institutions.

Julie creates these “story maps of no location” by projecting some of these references onto her support, using technical pens and rulers to trace them onto the ground. The work is preconceived and intentional. The drawing process references techniques of precision drawing by using a hard-edged geometric style. Mehretu uses Cartesian analysis throughout the research process in order to make sense of the invented places that create a context for her ‘characters’ to invade. At different points, she applies an acrylic and silica mixture which is painted and sanded smooth to create a translucent veil, which allows her to embed the drawn marks beneath creating a spatial depth.

Successive drawings traced become more abstracted through this multiple layering process. This additive and subtractive method is a transformative process that symbolizes change over history and in the painting itself. The top layer contains her painted language, which is applied loose and gestural; her calligraphic marks are painted with brush and ink through an intuitive organic process. Colour is referenced from the code colours on maps and culturally codified colours such as flags.

Mehretu’s paintings ‘depict social concerns of power, history and globalism layered with her own narrative of place, space and time that impact the formation of personal and communal identity’.

Paintings of the last few years include what she calls a ‘third space,’which emerges from the collision of the architectural drawings, her mark making and through repeated erasure. She metaphorically describes this third space “as the ruin or the un-building of space - a hybrid identity, an area of the sublime”. Mehretu describes all of these moments as being mashed together where a new potential emerges.

Julie’s central focus is always on the drawing process. She tries to understand her work through drawing; it is her point of entry and departure. Drawing is the backbone language of her practice, it informs and supports everything else in her work.  Written by Jill Ehlert

For more information on Julie:

PBS   Video: Art21   - This is a great video as are all the artist videos at this website

Audio interview from British Museum with Tim Marlowe and Julie Mehretu in conjunction with the show "Picasso to Julie Mehretu" modern drawings from the British Museum collection. 

Magazine Interview with Julie Mehretu and Lawrence Chua at Bombsite.com

Art in America/November 2010 - article by Eleanor Heartney "Invisible Networks"

Check out Julie's work on Google Images

Drawing workshops at VISA over the summer

Vancouver Island School of Art

MAKING A MARK - June 25, 26, 27 2012 taught by Danielle Hogan.

This workshop focuses on the most basic element of drawing: the linear mark. It explores the variety of ways a mark can be used as a form of expression with a focus on developing a personal mark in drawing. Artists include: Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, Terry Winters, Sol Lewitt, Raymond Pettibone and Dominic McGill. Fionna Banner, Robert Smithson, Louise Bourgeois, Brice Marden, Sol Lewitt .

NATURE & SCIENCE - August 30, 31, September 1 2012 taught by Wendy Welch

Nature has long been a subject of drawing from scientific diagrams to a range of purely observational sketches. Focus in this workshop is on integrating the scientific with the expressive approach towards a natural phenomenon or object. Workshop is comprised of hands-on exercises, critiques and visual presentations of artists doing related work. Artists discussed include: Russell Crotty, Vija Celmins, Ellen Gallagher, Sandra Cinto and Robyn O’Neil.

Inventing a fantastical flower using magazine collage, combining mechanical parts and organic. 

Fantastical Botanical Collage - Jill Ehlert

Fantastical Botanical Collage - Jill Ehlert

Fantastical Botanical Watercolour  based on the collage - Jill Ehlert

Fantastical Botanical Watercolour  based on the collage - Jill Ehlert

Reinveneting & Rearranging the Landscape

Fragmented Landscape Drawing - Jill Ehlert

Fragmented Landscape Drawing - Jill Ehlert



Invented Nature Cycle Diagram

Invented Life Cycle Diagram

Invented Life Cycle Diagram

Invented Process Diagram

Spattering tea on the paper, create a process.

Spattering tea on the paper, create a process.