How an Old World Fan Came to Love Contemporary Art

By Carol Douglas, Newsletter Volunteer

Like many art museum volunteers, I enjoy all kinds of art. But Old World paintings have always been my first love. I admit I’ve flirted shamelessly with impressionism, but still, when I visit the NCMA or an art museum in another city, the Old World galleries are usually my first stop.

So when asked to write about my impressions of the recent contemporary art exhibition Julie Mehretu: City Sitings, I wasn’t sure about the task. I wondered whether I had what it takes to fully appreciate her enormous talent, modern sensibility, and groundbreaking works. I decided to give it a try.

I needn’t have wondered. I came. I saw. I loved it.

Mehretu’s giant abstract canvases, full of motion and layered with meaning, are visually arresting from afar due to their sheer size, colors, patterns, and shapes. Her themes of human migration and social upheaval in cities make use of maps, buildings, and architecture to create works that move people through time and space. They compel you to come closer. They challenge you to make connections between the things you see.

In her own words, Julie Mehretu said of her work, “My aim is to have a picture that appears one way from a distance-almost like a cosmology, city, or universe from afar-but when you approach the work, the overall image shatters into numerous other pictures, stories, events.”

I stood close and discovered layers of architectural drawings rendered with a draftman’s skill. Looking deeper, I found highways, buildings, explosions, flags, and swirls in chaos or confrontations, erasures, and even corporate symbols. I stood back and appreciated the aesthetic beauty of the shapes, size, colors, and motion.

Observing others at the fall reception, I noticed many people looking closely at the paintings, carefully reading the labels, then stepping back and taking them in from a distance, while chatting among themselves. Sometimes a finger would point with delight at a recognizable symbol such as the NBC peacock. The paintings created a palpable buzz. While many of her paintings contain images or suggestions of destruction or chaos in urban settings, they are not nihilistic. Destruction and creation coexist in a way that is transcendent and ultimately hopeful.

From my perspective, the highlight of the exhibition was the three huge stadium paintings that were displayed together. I was reminded of stadiums such as the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing; Invesco Field in Denver, the site of Barack Obama’s Democratic nomination acceptance speech; Rome’s Coliseum, which I visited last summer; and the countless football stadiums we fill (and watch on TV) all season long. I thought about the roles stadiums have played in human history and the role they play today-structured places where people gather to yell, scream, pump their fists, and exhibit all sorts of behaviors that would not be acceptable anywhere else. Stadiums provide a place for us to release our competitive and often primitive spirit in a socially acceptable environment, while experiencing modern mass happenings of all kinds, from musical performances to sporting events to religious experiences.

My husband’s favorite was Mehretu’s muted, subtle work that contained literally hundreds of erasures. One had to peer closely to make out the half-hidden buildings and architectural elements. It reminded me of the design maxim, “Less is more.”

Before the evening was over, this Old World painting fan had been won over by the beauty, complexity, and power of contemporary art in the hands of a gifted artist such as Julie Mehretu. Her works have staying power in my mind’s eye. Maybe, just maybe, next time I visit an art museum, I’ll head for the contemporary art gallery first!