Abstract Art: Embrace the Uncertainty
Strange coincidences, Julie Mehretu and our mediated reality
Complicated Abstract Times
This week I’m sharing this 9 minute video featuring the American abstract artist Julie Mehretu. I’m a really big fan of her work, and I’ve featured her in a previous post about how art is always political.
The way she talks about abstract art is really interesting. I think a lot of people find abstraction difficult because it doesn’t have a clear and obvious subject matter, and it’s uncomfortable for some to not know what to think. That feeling of discomfort is definitely something I find when I’m teaching my undergraduate art history students about the emergence of abstract art in the 20th century: most of them struggle with it because they are looking for definite signs they can recognise from their visual lexicon to help them find the meaning.
I tell them to embrace the uncertainty of not knowing, and to think about abstract art as a visual metaphor for what one might call reality. The meaning in Mehretu’s work is difficult to pin down, it’s hazy. But uncertainty is precisely what her work is about. Mehretu argues that it’s really hard to know what our reality is now when so much of how we understand the world is mediated. Through her art she explores that uncomfortable feeling of instability and uncertainty.
You might say her work reflects our lives now: that state of constantly negotiating between realities, different worlds and perspectives. Mehretu adds another layer of meaning because of her experience of life as an immigrant in the USA after her family fled the political turmoil in Ethiopia in 1977. She describes how she operates in a in-between space, on the borders. She reminds me of the artist Maya Lin, whose work I talked about a few weeks ago.
Mehretu speaks eloquently about the global migration of people and the fractious politics of immigration in our current moment. It’s something she has personal experience of, and because her art is a visual metaphor for her reality the politics is embedded in her paintings.
I’d love to know what you think about her work and what she says in this video.
This weird thing happened to me a couple of days ago. I was reading an article online written by John-Paul Flintoff, an artist and writer that I hadn’t heard of before. It was quite a moving piece in which he describes how an art teacher at his school years ago had advised him not to make a career in art, his struggles with his mental health, and his return to art practice later in life.
Five minutes after I finished reading it Flintoff joined my mailing list. That freaked me out a bit, especially in light of my post earlier this week about artificial intelligence, art, and the systems we’re locked in to that operate silently behind the scenes, tracking us without us necessarily knowing.
Off I went down a rabbit hole to find out more about Flintoff. Half an hour later I’d watched him speak at a TEDx conference about how to change the world (he’s fascinating and full of ideas, I’d recommend watching it) and I saw a video of him sketch the actor Olivia Colman live on zoom during lockdown to raise money for a homeless charity. He’s great, and I enjoyed where the rabbit hole took me.
I emailed Flintoff to tell him what had happened and he explained how he found me. I’m now quite sure that it was a really strange and serendipitous coincidence. And I find it comforting to know that old-school chance still genuinely happens in cyberspace.
Thanks so much for these ideas! I really wasn't familiar with Mehretu beyond the surface. This framing of her work and the video are fascinating. I love the idea that her work represents something beyond and allowing ourselves to let go to the unknown rather than representing her/our known world. The idea that it is visceral is also compelling; her work seems to interact with the bodies that encounter them. I like the way she embraces the confusion and disillusionment of the times in order to find truth. Maybe this truth is not tangible yet, but we can move toward it in abstraction. She brings up language being used in this way; in the discussion of climate change and immigration she brings up, I find it is often the more abstract uses of language that allow us to push further. Of course, the danger is that the message may remain elusive to many. But if we always speak directly, are we not merely repeating what the media is telling us? Necessary on some level, yes, but perhaps just a starting space.
Of course, I am a bit lost in abstraction of language now, too! :)
I'm also looking forward to the Wednesday highlights. What a cool way to bring new artists into this discourse. Can't wait to see this.
I love Mehretu’s work! We have a fantastic one here in Detroit. I love watching her work. It’s exactly how I am in the studio. I feel so validated!
As an abstractionist—my first passion/pursuit before art writing—I regularly find myself disputing long held perceptions, explanations for abstraction such as the viewer gets to decide what a painting means. People regularly ‘find’ subjects that frankly don’t exist. Successful abstraction adheres to the same compositional components as representational, including a visual concept. This concept may be communicated through a picture’s title, but sometimes it’s left ambiguous, which is where I think the ‘viewer decides’ platform came from. You wouldn’t look at a still life of oranges and declare it looks like a bowl of Corvettes would you? Although an abstractionist’s topic/message isn’t always clear, there is one and should be respected.