Julie Mehretu: Ensemble. Inexpressive eloquence

Julie Mehretu: Ensemble. Inexpressive eloquence

Palazzo Grassi will host until January 6, 2025, the grand exhibition Ensemble, dedicated to the Ethiopian-American artist Julie Mehretu (born 1970, Addis Ababa). Curated by the artist herself and Caroline Bourgeois, the exhibition features over fifty works created between 2001 and 2024 and works by seven other artists – Nairy Baghramian, Huma Bhabha, Tacita Dean, David Hammons, Robin Coste Lewis, Paul Pfeiffer, and Jessica Rankin – chosen for their collaboration and friendship with Mehretu throughout her career. This approach, emphasizing biographical connections over formal coherence between the works, along with the decision to arrange the pieces non-chronologically or thematically, aims to avoid the conventional idea of a retrospective model, striving for a more fluid ensemble.

Julie Mehretu, “Desire was our breastplate”, 2022-2023, Pinault Collection. Installation view, “Julie Mehretu. Ensemble”, 2024, Palazzo Grassi, Venezia. Ph. Marco Cappelletti © Palazzo Grassi, Pinault Collection

The immediate impact of Mehretu’s works is undeniable. Her canvases, often large and featuring dark tones and dissonant colors, captivate their surroundings. While the surface appears uniformly flat, it contains intricate and layered markings that, when clustered, form gravitational centers. For instance, when approaching Fragment (2009), of over 3 x 4 meters, drawn to its density, one discovers a web of architectures emerging from smoky fields and dynamic lines, revealing an urban landscape shaped and confused by incomprehensible forces.

Julie Mehretu, “Your hands are like two shovels, digging in me (sphinx)”, 2021-2022, Courtesy of the artist and White Cube. Installation view, “Julie Mehretu. Ensemble”, 2024, Palazzo Grassi, Venezia. Ph. Marco Cappelletti © Palazzo Grassi, Pinault Collection

However, a close examination does not always unveil a possible key to interpreting these works. In nearly all of Mehretu’s more recent pieces, the layers rest on a backdrop of indefinite color shades. Only with the help of the paper guide one can discern that these backgrounds are images of contemporary events, blurred and digitally altered beyond recognition and transferred onto canvas. Regardless of the themes, the final outcome seems unchanging. The titles are vague, the starting images are generic and unrecognizable when altered, and markings do not respond to the subject or its aesthetic manifestation. The seemingly random arrangement of the works, constantly alternating different phases of Mehretu’s artistic development and thus radically different starting subjects, immediately highlights the monotony of her production.

(Left to right) Julie Mehretu, “Vanescere”, 2007, Pinault Collection; Fragment, 2009, Private Collection. Installation view, “Julie Mehretu. Ensemble”, 2024, Palazzo Grassi, Venezia. Ph. Marco Cappelletti © Palazzo Grassi, Pinault Collection

Throughout the exhibition, there is a striking variation in the underlying concepts of the works, paired with the unwavering nature of the abstract gesture in which they consist. Themes such as the Middle East conflict, wildfires in the United States, the Covid-19 pandemic, the Grenfell Tower tragedy and others, seemingly connected only by their contemporary relevance, are indiscriminately overlaid with dense layers of transformations and markings. The result is that the works appear similar – indecipherable and not superficially enjoyable – despite promising a wealth of thematic content, invisible and without a clear thread. The declared presence of evocative starting images shifts the focus from the abstract surface to the hidden meaning, but the inconsistency between the themes and the complete dissolution of any recognizable figure frustrates the search for a thematic or formal thread.

Julie Mehretu, “Maahes (Mihos) torch”, 2018-2019, Pinault Collection. Ph: Tom Powel Imaging. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

The works by the other artists in Ensemble, explicit and eloquent in comparison – whether through Hammons’ immediate symbols or Baghramian’s amorphous figures – highlight Mehretu’s reticence by contrast. The declared ambiguity is so total and prolonged that it soon turns into inexpressiveness, made evident by the repetition of the canvases but intrinsic to them due to the process that generated them. There the suspicion arises that the non-chronological order and the inclusion of other artists are attempts to conceal the vacuity of the protagonist’s production.

(Foreground – Left to right) Nairy Baghramian, “S’accrochant (crépuscule)”, 2022; “Se levant (mauve)”, 2022; “S’accrochant (ventre de biche)”, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City, New York; (Background- Left to right) Julie Mehretu, “They departed for their own country another day”, 2023, courtesy YAGEO Foundation Collection, Taiwan; Nairy Baghramian, “S’asseyant”, 2022, courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City, New York; Julie Mehretu, “Ghosthymn (after the Raft)”, 2019-2021, private collection. Installation view, “Julie Mehretu. Ensemble”, 2024, Palazzo Grassi, Venezia. Ph. Marco Cappelletti © Palazzo Grassi, Pinault Collection

However, another suspicion may also arise: that the extraordinary coldness emanating from theoretically rich works is intentional. That the true artistic operation might be to start from already eloquent content, add a multitude of painterly signs and achieve a completely silent and aseptic work, and then demonstrating that this operation can be endlessly repeated to gain recognition in the art world. It’s like the negative of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning, or rather an application of the same idea to today’s art scene, employing contemporary trends such as large formats, altered news images, the return to abstract expression, and the digital aesthetics of pixels and glitches. Rauschenberg demonstrated seventy years ago with a single framed blank sheet that the artistic gesture could consist in the absence of art; Mehretu shows today with hundreds of enormous colorful canvases that art cannot consist of political content and creative gestures.

Luca Avigo


Julie Mehretu. Ensemble
curated by Caroline Bourgeois and Julie Mehretu
17/03/2024 – 06/01/2025
Palazzo Grassi
Campo San Samuele 3231, Venezia


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