• chierkute

about Mehretu's monotypes

Updated: Apr 6, 2019


The exhibition showing drawings and monotypes by Julie Mehretu was opened at Kettle’s Yard in 22 January. Now, the exhibition is closed, and the gallery is currently installing a new show. How is it possible that I kept quiet for two months without a word about the exhibition presenting Julie Mehretu? - you may ask. Well, to be honest with you, I have visited the exhibition several times., attended the talk dedicated to the artist and her current exhibition, watched numerous videos about the artist, read about her work. Nonetheless, I still feel speechless.



Julie Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1970, and now lives in New York. She is one of the most highly regarded artists working today, who will be the subject of a major travelling mid-career survey curated by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Whitney Museum in New work, and the participant of the Venice Biennale 2019. Thus, to see Mehretu’s work at Kettle’s Yard was a rare treat.


Mehretu’s installation featured 84 small unique untitled framed monotypes of systematic order (3rows x (9 + 6 + 10 + 3) columns on each wall). 4 drawings were placed near the entry to the main room and another four drawings were installed at Helen Ede’s room in the House. See the introductory video.


A monotype is a hybrid of drawing and print. It is a unique print generated from an unrepeatable matrix through a press on a paper. Typically, the work/image is made by applying viscous ink onto a smooth, non-absorbent plate and then the paper is placed on top and is run through the press [1]. Therefore, it feels that five components are involved in the creating monotypes and should be discussed in more details: the artist and her motifs (I), the material of the matrix (II), ink (III), the press (IV), and the paper (V).


I. Inspiration

In 2017, Mehretu was commissioned to create a massive site-specific diptych of abstract canvases, exploring the American West landscapes and violent colonial history [2], and more recently, she exhibited her relatively large paintings ‘Sextant’ at White Cube [3]. Thus, she wanted to explore new areas and to achieve the different type of freshness for each mark. What came to her mind, it was sensitivity she saw in Degas’s works at the MoMa exhibition [4]some years ago, and the potential of experimental possibilities lying within monotypes captured her attention.


II. Freedom to draw and to erase

In the process of drawing, paper comes into play from the beginning. Thickness, absorbance, texture, brightness, etc. make an impact on the appearance of ink onto surface and resist, at some level, the movements of hand while drawing. On the opposite, having a smooth surface, for example, plexiglass, as in Mehretu’s case, for monotypes means complete freedom of act. The parallel, I believe, could be drawn to Jackson Pollock’s expressive works. Zero resistance surface allows merging urgency with lyricism, unconscious delivery of the movements in combination with full control of each mark made. In a way, once ink is applied onto surface, it can be erased removing, wiping it away from the matrix. An additional degree of freedom is given to work with on plexiglass, while paper immediately absorbs everything. The rhythm of making monotypes for Mehretu embrace connection and eruption of spontaneous marks.


III. Monochrome approach

Monotypes provide intimate atmosphere both in the process of creation and on display. While in printmaking, a master printer is usually involved, the delivery of monotypes could be solitary done by artist. The intimacy is strengthen using black ink. The contrast between the white paper and black ink support sharpness and willingness of unfettered gestural expression. Yet, the sense of depth is built up within the dynamic relations of background and foreground. Abstract shapes and figurative bodily features in monochrome palette are layered requiring more deep investigation of complex patterns. This could be reconstructed into three-dimensional structure, where less pigmented strokes and ununiform swashes form the basis and rich black marks come to the foreground.


IV. Press as an active agent of the process

Deliberate choice of making monotypes means some kind of distancing in the artist’s works. As oppose to drawing, in monotypes the artist shares responsibility of creating/making imagery with the press. As Prof J. Roberts puts it analysing Jasper Johns’s monotypes [1], the press can be considered as estranger (even something as intimate as fingerprint undergoes a fundamental alienation from its maker in the very act of being printed), literazer (the press often transfers different inks differently, depending on their drying times, viscosities, pigment ages), fixer (the final image is captured only when the press presses it, not before), blotter (the ink is free to squash, blot and reticulate under pressure, moving in different directions), timekeeper (the plate goes through the press and some of its ink is transferred to the paper, and the matrix is destroyed – it cannot be returned to the previous state). Considering different functions of the press, a continuous dialogue can be seen in the set of the monotypes. Some of the patterns becoming repetitive, some completely unique combining into overall dynamic result.


V. Paper withstands all

Usually, once the paper receives the image, the print is done. However, artists tend to disobey this rule. Mehretu challenged the ordinary practice by manually adding blurred lines of spraying paints on top of her prints. This created the sense of some parts being out of focus, moving monotypes towards the digital age, or giving a reference to modernity. Here, the dialogue of black and white, on and off, analogue and digital could be extended to the conversation between Mehretu’s monotypes, Gerhard Richter’s photographic series 48 Portraits and Jaume Plensa’s Dallas?...Caracas?. The gridded display, black and white present digital aesthetics that cannot be neglected in either of these works.


Creating monotypes involves freedom in consciously or subconsciously making marks, and meticulous control of every stroke, while having a chance of unpredictability and impersonality by involving the press in the process. Mehretu’s choice of the medium presented her modern meditative achievement of figuration and abstraction, followed by intimacy and spontaneity.


Looking forward to seeing more of Mehretu's work.



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