Julie Mehretu's riotous paintings of layered geometries and explosive gesture are on view in the Guggenheim through October 2010. I pretended to talk with her about her work in this fake interview.
Perry Garvin: Julie, welcome.
Julie Mehretu: Thanks for having me.
PG: First off, how do you pronounce your last name? I've heard so many incarnations.
PG: Oh good, that's the way I've been pronouncing it. OK - let's get this one out of the way early: how do you make the pictures?
JM: Each one's approached differently, of course, but generally the way it goes is that I do a lot of small drawings and then project them onto the canvas and trace the forms onto the canvas. So those Berlin street views... Those were drawn in my notebook and then scanned into Illustrator and tightened up and then projected onto the canvas which is then traced onto the painting. It's a multi-step process. To get all the layering, I just project another drawing onto the canvas and trace it on. That's how it all builds up. It's very labor intensive and I have a lot of assistants that help with that transcription process. Darryl is the Illustrator whiz who totally makes my pretty rough drawings really precise. Then I'll come in and improvise some parts. So it's a mix.
PG: These are really complex works - just so much going on. Visual overload. I was wondering if there are any mistakes in any of these pictures. Can you make a mistake?
JM: Well... I mean - I guess I don't understand your question.
PG: Are each one of these paintings perfect or do you see mistakes in them?
JM: Well, nothing is ever "perfect." Sure, there are some things I look at and think - I wish I could adjust this here and there. But I think that's normal. I would guess that every artist would tweak and tweak forever if they were allowed to. Usually, you reach a point where you feel like the picture is done even though it may not be perfect. Does that make sense?
PG: Yeah. Can you give me an example of a mistake in your work?
JM: [Laughs] I'd rather keep that to myself.
PG: OK, that's fair, but do you think that you could make a mistake and have anyone know?
JM: That's a weird question. It doesn't matter if the public "knew;" I would know! And if there are too many mistakes or problems with the picture then it's a failure and it gets canned.
PG: I've heard critics speak of your work as being a visual manifestation of the information overload in our culture. Do you agree with them?
JM: Sure. They are very visually complex paintings and I think they can be overwhelming. Are they constructed to be a commentary on information overload? Definitely not. I hate it when paintings are "commentaries." That drives me nuts. I believe that a painting shouldn't be a little pundit commenting on things. It should stand on its own - you know - be independent.
PG: I think that's a controversial viewpoint.
JM: Maybe. I'm concerned about the growth of issue-based work. I think that art should be mysterious. It should be a cipher. I would hope that someone coming into the Guggenheim to see these pictures didn't feel as if I knocked them over the head with a message. I'd like them to think - whoa - these pictures are hot shit!
PG: That what I like about your work: there are parts that are very hot shit - the forms that seem to be flying around. But there are also parts that are very very cool. The perfectly rendered geometric bits. That contrast is highly effective.
JM: That's the Mehretu way!
PG: What's it like to show at the Guggenheim.
JM: It's a great honor. I went to school at Columbia and spent a lot of time in the Guggenheim looking at the Kandinskys. To be footsteps away from these masters is an amazing privilege.
PG: Did you think that you'd ever be shown at such an august institution?
JM: Well, I certainly hoped I would! [Laughs] I mean, that's the dream, right? I didn't know if I would be successful but I did know that I would work hard. And I think the two are very closely related because if you spend hours and hours in your studio your work will get better. And you know that book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. There's a direct connection between practice and success.
PG: I'm glad that you're so successful because I want to be able to see as much of your work as I can. What does one of those paintings on view cost?
JM: They are ridiculously expensive. Thousands and thousands of dollars. It's amazing.
PG: But it's fair - it's an open market. Too bad I could never afford one of your paintings, though.
JM: Maybe you could afford a print.
JM: Well, it's an unfortunate consequence of being in demand - you stop being affordable.
PG: Any thoughts on the scandal at The Project?
JM: Plenty, but I'm keeping mum.
PG: OK, well thanks so much for talking with me. One final question: what's next?
JM: Flying back to Berlin to go to the studio and get a new bunch of work out the door for an upcoming exhibition in Canada. I just opened a new studio so it's been crazy getting it up and running with so many deadlines. And then once that push is over I'm going to the south of France in September for some R and R.