For Mehretu, abstraction "allows for thinking of an issue from different perspectives, from many points of view." "I work with source material that I am interested in conceptually, politically, or even just visually," she has explained. "I pull from all of this material, project it, trace it, break it up, recontextualize it, layer one on the other, and envelop it into the DNA of the painting. It then becomes the context, the history, the point of departure. It becomes the place of the painting."
Gallery label from Multiplex: Directions in Art, 1970 to Now, November 21, 2007-July 28, 2008.
The subject of this painting-drawing hybrid is Istanbul, a city perched on the border between Europe and Asia. The large scale of the work captures the epic dimension of the site, which was the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. The Hagia Sophia—an Eastern Orthodox church converted to a mosque, then to a museum—occupies the quiet center of this frenzied metropolis. Mehretu articulates the texture of Istanbul in both its globalized modernity and its specificity, which she reveals through markers like the star and crescent, flags, and Islamic architectural and decorative motifs. Istanbul appears jazzy, animated, and seductive, but also as a zone of danger. The bright rectangles of flashing signs and Mehretu’s obsessively proliferating abstract ink marks signal speed and the wild energy of a thriving organism or an apocalyptic bonfire. The mad profusion of chaotic information provides alarming signs of an out-of-control city in a state of emergency. Shuttling between inside and outside, past and present, chaos and order, and the local and the global, this work's viewers may experience a combination of exhilaration and fear—an urge to plunge into the action but also to withdraw from the madness and meditate on the collapse of a decaying, overstimulated civilization. It is in capturing the inner contradictions of Istanbul that Mehretu’s portrait approximates its model.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Higlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 203.