Julie Mehretu

After the completion of the wall drawing, Julie Mehretu was interviewed by David Binkley, Chief Curator, and Kinsey Katchka, Research Specialist, on March 28, 2003.

DB: The first question is, what is the function of your drawing in the development of your painting? Is it a way to work out ideas and translate them into painting or is this a kind of separate creative activity that has a justification of its own?

JM: Both. I think that for me the paintings grew out of the drawing in the beginning. My initial impulse and investigation was to try and develop, through drawing, a language that could communicate different types of narratives and build a cityscape, each mark having a character, a modus operandi of social behavior. As they continued to grow and develop in the drawing I wanted to see them layered; to build a different kind of dimension of space and time into the narratives.

DB: Is layering a part of your drawing?

JM: Yes, layering is part of the drawing; it's also part of the painting. And [it] shows how the drawing moves into the painting, which is the way I think about making this work. It's really about developing a language and most of the activity of making it is very much about drawing and about the investigation that happens, but it is also a process itself, and painting is very different process-wise. It takes a lot more time.

KK: Do you find that you're more spontaneous with one than the other?

JM: No. I've gotten to the point where I find I'm developing a way to draw on canvas, in the paintings, in the way that I want to draw on paper. I used to draw on paper a lot, and then I would do a painting that would incorporate a lot of the elements I had investigated in drawing. I would put it all into the painting by drawing it onto the canvas. But now, during this last year, I haven't done any drawings on paper--all the work has been on canvas. It's all been drawing directly on canvas and there's been an immense amount of growth and change in the work. It's all documented there. I can say I don't like a painting and never show it to anyone, but generally all the work is there naked--in the painting-- and for me it's very much about bringing these two things together.

DB: Is there a difference in the structure in creating a drawing versus a painting? What I'm thinking of is that a drawing can be read as one dimension that might be quite complex, but a painting is layered. So you have not only depth, but you have overall surface to contend with... where here it seems, I guess you are creating depths because you have washes and all of that.

JM: But the process of approaching the work conceptually is completely different. The conceptual place of approach in a drawing is very investigatory...I don't like to separate drawing and painting, because I draw in my paintings. But I do think of my paintings very much as paintings and not drawings, and drawings very much as drawings. The thing that separates these two is that this wall drawing is a five day process: the conceptual idea and investigation are immediate and fast. A drawing is created at a different pace. With the paintings, it's about building spaces, about constructing something else. There are a lot of decisions I've made conceptually before I start to paint. I've done research about what is going to go into the painting in terms of architectural information, color, narrative, concept and other stuff and then there is the development of the drawing in the painting. Painting, the making of it, is just a much more complex process, whereas the process of making a drawing is a fresh take, it's a very immediate thing.

DB: Is it maybe more of an opportunity for experimentation?

JM: Yes--experimentation, investigation, questioning. Not that that doesn't happen in a painting but in the painting I am very much aware that's it's becoming a painting. I make an effort to bring those processes together more and more, but it's difficult, because once you've spent four months working on a painting, it's hard to just let go and draw in the same way that you can on a blank wall.

KK: It reminds me of a process that a lot of people went through with the onset of the computer age first, handwriting things before entering them into the computer; then having to make that transition to entering text directly into the computer and bypassing a preparatory step that's more manual.

JM: So many writers cannot work off the computer while there are others who are going back to writing by hand.

KK: A different methodological process.

JM: Yes, and I think that's what the difference is...this wall drawing is about an experiment, about taking a blank space and playing with it to try to create something else that doesn't have the loaded weight that a painting has.

DB: Is there more a commitment to a painting, especially if you have a multi-layered surface and you have to work it out?

JM: Yes. Especially if you have six layers of drawing and have been working on it for months...the commitment--everything, the financial commitment in a painting, the time commitment in a painting, the sanding, the whole kind of emotional commitment--it is very different to begin a painting, whereas here you know you can paint over it; it's latex paint--it's like buying a piece of paper and drawing on it.

DB: I want to ask you something about the symbols you employ in your drawing. You have explosions and maybe implosions. I wonder if any of that is borrowed from wall graffiti or comic book imagery.

JM: Yes. I use all kinds of resources as guides for structuring the drawings that I'll project onto the wall. I use different types of comic books, different kinds of graffiti and tags, but also parts of baroque engravings like Dürer, Japanese/Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting. Different types of media are used to inform the process. But generally the structure for this piece is based on a particular Japanese comic book illustration.

DB: While you were working on the wall, I noticed a lot of changes, especially the thick, arching lines that you made. They were in one place one day and another place the next. Is it because when you project something on the wall, you may have an idea that you think will work, or discover that it doesn't work, and so things can dramatically change in the process?

JM: Oh yes. I used the tape to make those big structural shapes so I can move them around. They also give a structural sense to it. I had this one idea that I wanted to explore because of the skylight [that is situated directly above the wall I painted here]. The wall is moving up into the sky, and that tends to be a structure I use in a lot formally in my paintings. There is a center space of [ascension] and descension. I really wanted to investigate that same idea in this vertical format; I've never worked on a vertical format before. But a lot of ascension paintings such as Michelangelo's employ a vertical format in that way.

DB: Can you speak a bit more about this notion of ascension? I know you just made a print for the New Museum entitled "Rogue Ascension."

JM: Well, I'm interested in this idea of a cycle. There's this idea that happens in cultures and through time that if we try to understand the cosmos there's this place above that is a point of destination, a point of beginning...

DB: Or creation.

JM: Creation. I think of it in terms of an hourglass shape, where the universe tends to rotate around the center of the hourglass. Many cultures have had a similar belief of the universe and its structure and I guess it is something that's come into my work. There's a space in the center where there's really nothing going on, [and yet there is]. I feel that there's a force extending from the top to the bottom, all this activity goes around just beyond it. To me that's a point of potential, a point of departure. The beginning. I wanted to deal with the skylight and the natural light as this place where everything was falling down and out but at the same time exploding upwards.

KK: One of the things I was thinking about when I was looking at the drawing was that the work seems paradoxical in that it has this enormous scale but at the same time very minute detail. How do you begin a creative work of this scale with such small markings or details?

JM: That fits into the conceptual framework that I'm thinking about it and working in. The big question for me is how big an impact or a role the individual can have in a large community and that's really the content of the narrative. The narratives come together to create this overall picture that you see from the distance, especially in my large canvases. As you come close to it and the big picture completely shatters and there are these numerous small narratives happening. They become the focal point, and again as you back up, you lose the specificity. Those marks disappear into the larger context of the whole. I'm interested in describing this as a system...a whole cosmos, and that is the overall painting, while the little minute detail marks act more like characters, individual stories. Each mark has agency in that sense--individual agency.

KK: Another thing you mentioned in our earlier conversation was that the multiple marks suggest dis-empowered populations in your mind. I was wondering, since mapping is a way of claiming and controlling space, would it be fair to say that your paintings are means of empowerment?

JM: Yes, I think maybe. I would like to think of them that way, but I think they're also asking questions about power in general. I am very interested in being able to bring those things up as questions rather than necessarily saying something definitive about them. But yes, I generally like to think of the drawing as ... well, you've heard me talk about Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth, the drawing is the wretched part of the painting, the life of the painting. So the architecture and everything else is consumed by the drawing. At the same time the drawing spits the architecture--superstructure/infrastructure--right back at you, and this is important to me.

KK: That ties into what you were saying about the cosmos idea, too, this process of destruction and regeneration all in one.

JM: That there's this thing that seems to be cyclical. I don't want to be too didactic [or literal] ... that this is an empowerment project, or not. I don't think of it that way.

DB: But it's history.

JM: Well, it's more like a narrative: there are moments of uprising, and there are moments of intense empowerment, but there are other places in the work where it is clearly not there.

DB: During an interview some time ago you described the importance of large-scale history paintings in your work, and that you were influenced by Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, and other artists were mentioned. In my own readings of Pollock and Newman, especially Newman, there was a strong interest in moving the viewer. Causing transcendence, whatever that might be so that all peripheral vision is encased within his work as the viewer looks at it. And I wonder if you have the viewer in mind when you create your work.

JM: Oh yes, I think a lot about the relationship between a viewer and the painting in that these are clearly objects. And the paintings that I'm making are for the most part very large and dictatorial in terms of how you can move through them. You can't look at the whole painting from a distance, like you can a small painting. And so that immediately sets up a kind of dynamic ... and that's an intentional decision. Other smaller paintings are very intentionally small and very intimate.

DB: It demands reading over a long period of time, and maybe that's part of the reason why your work is becoming more complex. Maybe it's your own interest, but maybe it's also the viewer.

JM: I think generally the development of the work is made from my own interest. But I think that definitely the decision to say, "Is this piece going to be large or small" really does come from how I am thinking of the viewer as participating with the painting. How I am going to participate with the painting. I'm really playing all these different roles in making it. I'm looking at it, taking it apart, trying to analyze what I'm doing, and then I'm looking at it as a viewer, and I participate with it, in it. It is not just an expressionistic endeavor.

KK: Not just impulsive.

JM: Yes, not just as if this is what I want to see, it's more about how does this really operate in my project? How does it make sense here?

KK: I think that comes through as the viewer, too, the complex process you go through creating it necessitates the same kind of response from the viewer, it takes a lot of time and attention to see what's going on because there's so much there. That intentional process you have really shapes the viewer's experience.

JM: I hope so.

KK: What do you see in this drawing that differs from some of your previous drawings?

JM: Generally in the previous ones, I would take a smaller drawing of an explosion and blow it up big. And I've had smaller marks, but not as varied, and not as numerous. So this drawing has a lot more going on...this is more about many narratives culminating into one large thing. And the use of the wall is much more dynamic and active in the piece.

KK: So much of the writings on your work talk about the urban transnational experience. However, I see a lot of the natural world in your work, too, and that hasn't been talked about as much.

JM: I agree. That's hasn't been talked about as much. That's a big part of the work, I think. The drawing is organic in process. The drawing has agency, in a way, as does any natural occurrence.

DB: Could you push that thought about agency a little more?

JM: Well, I really think of the drawing as growing, as behaving, as building, as acting. I don't think of the drawing as being a static representation of something. The architectural drawing, or the painting, the colored painting aspect, is much more rigid. Painting is more of a representation of something else, a metaphor for something else. Of course it has agency in a certain sense, but it's not an active agent in the same way that I think the drawing is. It is actually behaving within the superstructure. It really isn't that, it's only a drawing, but I think of it and make them that way.

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