Thursday, May 20, 2010

Julie Mehretu: Capitalizing on Smooth Capital

During our final evening together (and, indeed, throughout the semester and on this blog) the concepts of smoothness and striation have been especially fruitful, most recently in the presentations by Raul and Vanessa, for instance, partly I think because of the relatively clear visual analogies that they conjure up–to, say, the smooth ocean and the striated urban grid–while related terms like becoming and being remain more abstract. Our understanding of these opposite yet always contiguous if not overlapping notions of smoothness and striation become partly unsettled (or... smoothed?) when Deleuze and Guattari make the further distinction in A Thousand Plateaus (1980) that now, at the "dominant level of integrated (or rather integrating) world capitalism, a new smooth space is produced in which capital reaches its 'absolute' speed, based on machinic components rather than the human component of labor" (492). We addressed this capitalist version of smoothness briefly in class, attributing it to new forms of capitalism that have emerged in the last 30 to 40 years, types of capitalist societies and cultures in which the multinational corporation replaces the State as the dominant agent of control. What makes contemporary global capitalism smooth rather than striated, from what I understand, is that it constantly offers more, and at greater speeds. As an undergraduate professor once put it to me, very helpfully: Whereas pre-capitalist societies and early forms of capitalism said "No," contemporary global capitalism always says "Yes." Though this much is clear, and fairly intuitive, I began to wonder (as this is a question that came up as I was writing my final paper) how we might represent this absolutely smooth capitalism that is constantly in the process of becoming smoother. Having just seen the new exhibition of large-scale mixed media canvases by Julie Mehretu at the Guggenheim, Grey Area (through October 6), her work immediately struck me as one of the most well-developed and eloquent representations of this smooth capitalism in contemporary art. The fact that the works were commissioned by a global bank, Deutsche Bank, adds a further irony to this fact.

Mehretu is an American artist who was born in Ethiopia in 1970, her work consists of large-scale drawings, collages and paintings that she composes as separate layers first on a computer, then projects these digital images onto her massive canvases (each of the six pieces in this exhibition are 11 feet tall and 14 feet wide) and applies a range of materials from acrylic paints and ink to pencil and strips of paper, each in successive layers. Once the different levels (sometimes as many as six) are applied and fixed she makes more gestural, expressionist additions to the final composition. In this exhibition she rubbed and scraped certain areas, creating ghostly patches of erasure, destruction and absence. The resulting compositions are spectacularly busy yet almost infinitely zoom-able; that is, the level of detail in Mehretu's work is such that one can focus on a very small section of any piece and still have more than enough details and layers to tease apart. The super-imposed patterns in each piece include: architectural vectors of virtually every style of building, from classical and Renaissance structures to modern skyscrapers, airports and stadiums; pointillist ink blots that often cluster to evoke flocks of birds or swarms of insects; narrow strips of acrylic paint in neon and pastel hues that, though very subtle, direct the viewers' eyes with sharp diagonal lines; thicker bands and geometric forms of cut-out paper that often bend, curve and loop, suggesting cyclical patterns rather than unidirectional movements; and soft, transparent, cloud-like areas of primary colors.

The very affecting visual challenge in much of her work, at least initially, is to distinguish the various superimposed layers and then understand the myriad ways in which they do or don't work together, continuing and complimenting each other's forms and dimensions. Her process of superimposition, in which the architectural diagrams are always the bottom layer, the first one applied, evokes Deleuze and Guattari's comment that "when the striated attains its ideal of perfect homogeneity, it is apt to reimpart smooth space" (488). In Mehretu's work, the most striated elements, these architectural drawings, seem to give shape to the smoother forms at play above, as if this fundamental architectonic groundwork were necessary to give rise to the churning, slipping and swarming layers that come after. In her work, striation always precedes smoothness in much the same way that striated capital necessarily preceded smooth capital. Her compositions are extremely fluid despite their many rectilinear components. There is often a predominant flow or movement to each piece, whether sweeping across the canvas or swirling in circular currents, but within isolated sections it's nearly impossible to discern a specific direction or perspective. Each composition is made up of seemingly infinite elements and multiple layers that nevertheless contribute to an overarching system that is dazzling, polysemic and unquantifiable. In this respect, Mehretu's work offers what seems to me a very appropriate and nuanced visual representation of the type of smoothness being perpetually generated, expanded and amplified by contemporary global capitalism. Both are impossibly complex systems made up of qualitatively distinct elements–some of which seem smooth while others are irrevocably striated–that nonetheless make up extremely dynamic and smooth forms. Part of what makes contemporary global capitalism so insidious is the way in which it seems to evade representation and resistance by being in a constant state of change of acceleration. Mehretu, it seems to me, manages to convey this process of never-ending renewal, flux and expansion, and with spectacular clarity.

-Ben Sutton

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