From the Vault: Highlight from the Davison Art Center Collection

From the Vault: Highlight from the Davison Art Center Collection

Clare Rogan, Curator

In the beginning was the mark. Contem­porary artist Julie Mehretu began her career making small marks on paper, exploring how marks convey information, drawing short strokes that combined to evoke abstract communities or social systems. Today she creates monumental works out of narrow lines, short repeated marks, and subtle veils of color. The Davison Art Center recently acquired Mehretu’s intaglio print The Residual, 2007, in which the smallest of lines are repeated, and repeated, building up to a dramatic and chaotic, yet controlled, energetic swirl. The resulting print demonstrates the contemporary vitality of the purest element of art—the simple mark.

Mehretu’s own life suggests the swirl and migration of peoples. She was born in Ethiopia and moved to the United States with her family at the age of seven. Raised in Michigan, she attended Kalamazoo College, and then the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. She received a MacArthur “Genius” fellowship in 2005, and in 2007 she was a resident at the American Academy in Berlin.

The Residual is one of two prints Mehretu created during a visit to Crown Point Press in San Francisco in 2007. In a recent conversation, Ianne Kjorlie, one of the three printers who worked with the artist, described the process. Five copper plates were used to print the image, layer by layer. First Mehretu created two plates with repeated etched and drypoint lines. These were printed first, one in a gray ink and the next in a black ink. Next came a layer of atmospheric color: light daubs of yellow, orange, red, magenta, and green printed from spit-bite aquatint marks on the plate. To create a spit-bite mark, the copper plate is first prepared with a rosin aquatint. Then the artist brushes a solution of nitric acid, water, and gum arabic directly on the plate. A fourth plate, also with daubs of spit-bite, was printed in a purple-blue and gray. Finally came a plate with broadly brushed strokes of sugar-lift and spit-bite aquatint printed in black, evoking the energetic strokes of Chinese calligraphy. The layers overlap with the grays and blacks predominating, as the subtle layers in color shimmer, suggesting the possibility of sun after a storm. Standing in front of the print, the mind tries to corral the marks, to see groups of lines evoking flocks of birds or the pattern of feathers, pouring rain, twisting storm clouds, floods, a mountainside, or the whirls of a weather map. Perhaps there is even a falling Icarus, feathers trailing behind him as he tumbles from the sky. In the end, these are just imaginings. The mark is the content, whether drawn or brushed.

The Residual will be shown in Excavations: The Prints of Julie Mehretu, an exhibition organized by Highpoint Editions, Minneapolis. The exhibition will be on display in the Davison Art Center from September 16 through December 11, 2011. UPFRONT

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