The ontological riot : Julie Mehretu and the visuality of (im)possibility




Karazija, Lauren

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This paper addresses HOWL, eon (I, II), 2017, by artist Julie Mehretu (American, b. Ethiopia, 1970), two monumental paintings installed in the foyer of the newly renovated San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In a bottom-up approach, moving from the underlayers of the compositions, this essay explores, almost exclusively, the contents of these two works. The text identifies curated images of 19th-century American landscape painting digitally enmeshed with the viral photographs documenting anti-police demonstrations in London, 2011, and throughout the United States in 2014 and 2015. Mehretu’s procedure prompts me to investigate the contents of that exchange between historical and contemporary imagery as a point of entry to the paintings. Beyond their immediate readings, the images establish a context that perpetuates attitudes of anti-blackness and coloniality, sustaining discursively a hierarchical structure of power. As part of her strategy, Mehretu obscures the digital content of the paintings beyond legibility. She introduces an alternative field of visuality, one based upon her own musings and improvisational, performative acts of abstract, gestural mark-making. Mehretu’s mark becomes her means of searching for "the break," the fissure to be discovered in the discontinuities between the reality professed by dominant narratives and the realities of those whom such narratives purportedly represent. The visual field, a landscape, envisions a path paved by violence and the refusal that conditions black life. The radical dream to end this world and dream of something other, a flickering space of possibility—a dream that, indeed, may seem illegible, fanciful, criminal, and impossible—begins, first, with the "ontological riot"



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