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“They will not give up all their secrets…”

Hello painters,

I was talking to a friend recently about our art school education, and they mentioned how in our undergrad classes we rarely ever were taught about what was happening currently in contemporary art.

Even though we didn’t go to the same schools I could easily relate. A typical art history survey course would usually end around the 70s, discussing Minimalism and Donald Judd. I did once take a course that began at 1945 in order to avoid this problem, but I still don’t think we made it all the way to the 🤖 2000s 🤖

I do remember getting a text book for that class and flipping all the way to the end, in order to find out what was the absolute most recent thing they discussed. There was a chapter about video artists, like Pipilotti Rist, but believe me… reading a text book about a visual medium like video art left a lot to be desired.

I think that entering grad school, everyone was more or less in the same boat, and that if you knew anything about contemporary artists it’s because you did your own research going to shows or looking things up online.

But of course, the popularities of current, living contemporary artists were rising and falling just out of sight of our undergrad attentions. By the time I made it to grad school in 2011, the most recent layer of the artistic canon was cooling and hardening like recently expelled lava.

Julie Mehretu was and remains a part of that canon, an artist whose accomplishments had been confirmed and appreciated. Hers was one of those names that everyone knew, which made her irrelevant in a strange way.

If you have spent time amongst nerds of any type, you will understand that knowledge of the obscure is the most valuable form of currency. To rise to the top of the nerd heap, you must discover and cherish the person, movement, or style that no one else knows about. The most commonly known artists are worth pennies, and certain artists were so well known that their names were hardly ever uttered.

Once you reach this level as an artist, grad students may cease arguing about you, but you do get Art21 episodes made about you. And you get several NY Times profiles written about you. That has happened recently with Julie Mehretu, and if you are just beginning to learn about her, don’t worry. There’s a couple good places to start.

This article from the Times provides an excellent summary of Mehretu’s background and journey from Ethiopia to Michigan to RISD and beyond. Her new, massive show at the Whitney will feature work from seemingly all decades of Mehretu’s career, including early drawings made while she was in school.

One of the most important things you need to know about Mehretu, and one of the things that might help you the most with your own abstract paintings, is the way in which Mehretu spent time establishing her own method of mark making. As we’ve talked about before, painting is a way of communicating, and the elements of art (line, color, shape, etc) form the parts of your vocabulary.

Mehretu created an expansive vocabulary: armed with a wide variety of different marks, she has created paintings covered in dense layers of brush strokes, pen strokes, lines from markers with thick felt tips and tiny felt tips, ink brushes, and so on.

As a painter, consider your mark making vocabulary, and what it enables you to say on the canvas. You might want to cover a very specific topic or theme, and are able to effectively communicate that with one brush or one style of mark. But Mehretu has a lot to talk about, and draws from a lot of different sources of inspiration, and does so by utilizing her variety of mark making techniques.

In this other, separate article from the Times, you can read about Mehretu’s approach to content. “A typical Mehretu cross-referencing conversation veers from the Tiananmen Square massacre to Le Corbusier to colonialism.”

Despite these wide ranging references that form the foundations for her various paintings and motivate her to tackle topics from colonialism to racism to protest movements around the world, the artist has always remained a fervent disciple of abstraction.

This allows for a kind of fluidity and flexibility in terms of what issues to tackle within her paintings and how to do it. She also has the somewhat rare ability to evolve as an artist, which has ruffled the feathers of galleries and auction houses that prefer a more stable investment. This is partially how Mehretu has been able to both be a part of and a rejoinder to the elite realm of the art world which she inhabits.

A couple extra painting links…

Artworks as Portent and Balm: a showing of works by painter Patricia Satterlee with an undeniable title: Enough PIE for everyone! These are 30 paintings of what are essentially pie charts created by the artist during the course of the pandemic.

So Much Achieved in So Little Time: a review of paintings by Ilse D’Hollander, which include many beguiling paintings of what seem to be landscapes that never quite resolve into a recognizable shape or form.

I recently came across the work of Merlin James, who makes some very strange and hard to pin down paintings that I would also recommend, and which could make an interesting double exhibition with D’Hollander. James does not paint in one genre alone, but veers from figurative to abstract to landscape.

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This week I want to recommend a couple songs from an album by Ahmad Jamal, one that was recorded live at the Pershing Lounge in Chicago in 1958. There is also a follow up to that album as well. Enjoy!

Ahmad Jamal - But Not For Me
Ahmad Jamal - Moonlight in Vermont
Ahmad Jamal - No Greater Love
Ahmad Jamal - Poinciana

Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing Volume 2 (1961, Full Album)

That’s all for this week folks. See you next time, and happy painting
(° ͜ʖ͡°)

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