A new exhibition of paintings by Julie Mehretu at the Disney Hall's REDCAT Gallery, is an intriguing and, to a certain degree, befuddling cultural event. It reveals the insatiable hunger of the art world for anointing new stars, needed for proliferating international exhibitions and for supplying fresh names to the aging faculties of the prestigious art schools. Besides, such discoveries enable us, critics, to wax poetically on all things artistic.
Born in Ethiopia, but raised and educated in the United States, Julie Mehretu developed, over the last few years, a strong following and was specially praised at the recent Whitney Biennial. Her either small or huge multi-layered abstract paintings have the appearance of computer generated graphic designs, frozen at the moment of a violent explosion. The compositions consist of thousands of bursting geometric shards painted in muted, polite colors. Underneath this, are complicated layers of dense line drawings, with visual references to modern and contemporary architecture as well as to maps of various cities in Africa. To be honest, I didn't decipher these references until I read about them in the rather gushy review in the L.A. Times and then in the extremely verbose curator's statement in the exhibition catalogue. What I experienced as undeniably ambitious, meticulously crafted and pleasantly decorative paintings, other critics praised as a groundbreaking achievement by the artist who courageously addressed the dramatic events of our time, including the tragedy of 9/11. Somehow, I am not buying into that.
The elegantly designed exhibition catalogue intersperses color reproductions with pages of black and white photographs, documenting political unrest around the world. But instead of reinforcing dramatic tension, supposedly encoded into the artwork, these photographs reveal an emotional gap between the artist's noble intentions to evoke "the tragic aspects of history," and the actual paintings, which, while dramatic in their appearance, appeal mostly to your eye, not to your heart.
And though Julie Mehretu's draftsmanship is undeniable, I think it's a disservice to the artists and to her followers to invoke the names of Leonardo, Michelangelo D-rer or Goya while discussing her art. A rather weighty, immodest claim for a promising artist at the beginning of her career.
As a contrast, the dramatic and at the same time, low-key installation by Jannis Kounellis at the Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills, effortlessly evokes intricate connections with the whole world and literally makes you smell the coffee. The installation consists of 56 suspended floor-to-ceiling delicate columns, each made from 18 small, interconnected, square metal plates, with ground coffee heaped in a small pile. Kounellis, one of the founding figures of Arte Povera in Italy, demonstrates here his trademark visual discipline and conceptual vigor, using coffee as the subject and metaphor for our socializing, cultural interdependence, and international commerce. Absolutely first rate exhibition, you don't want to miss.
"Drawing Into Painting"
The Gallery at REDCAT
631 W. 2nd St., L.A.
Ends: August 8
9430 Wilshire Blvd.
Runs through June