Issue 35 February 2024

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Issue 24 May 2021

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Issue 22 November 2020

Issue 21 August 2020

Issue 20 May 2020

Issue 19 February 2020

Letter from the Editor –Lindsay Preston Zappas
Parasites in Love –Travis Diehl
To Crush Absolute On Patrick Staff and
Destroying the Institution
–Jonathan Griffin
Victoria Fu:
Camera Obscured
–Cat Kron
Resurgence of Resistance How Pattern & Decoration's Popularity
Can Help Reshape the Canon
–Catherine Wagley
Trace, Place, Politics Julie Mehretu's Coded Abstractions
–Jessica Simmons
Exquisite L.A.: Featuring: Friedrich Kunath,
Tristan Unrau, and Nevine Mahmoud
–Claressinka Anderson & Joe Pugliese
Reviews April Street
at Vielmetter Los Angeles
–Aaron Horst

Chiraag Bhakta
at Human Resources
–Julie Weitz

Don’t Think: Tom, Joe
and Rick Potts

–Matt Stromberg

Sarah McMenimen
at Garden
–Michael Wright

The Medea Insurrection
at the Wende Museum
–Jennifer Remenchik

(L.A. in N.Y.)
Mike Kelley
at Hauser & Wirth
–Angella d’Avignon
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Issue 18 November 2019

Letter from the Editor –Lindsay Preston Zappas
The Briar and the Tar Nayland Blake at the ICA LA
and Matthew Marks Gallery
–Travis Diehl
Putting Aesthetics
to Hope
Tracking Photography’s Role
in Feminist Communities
– Catherine Wagley
Instagram STARtists
and Bad Painting
– Anna Elise Johnson
Interview with Jamillah James – Lindsay Preston Zappas
Working Artists Featuring Catherine Fairbanks,
Paul Pescador, and Rachel Mason
Text: Lindsay Preston Zappas
Photos: Jeff McLane
Reviews Children of the Sun
– Jessica Simmons

Derek Paul Jack Boyle
–Aaron Horst

Karl Holmqvist
at House of Gaga, Los Angeles
–Lee Purvey

Katja Seib
at Château Shatto
–Ashton Cooper

Jeanette Mundt
at Overduin & Co.
–Matt Stromberg
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Issue 17 August 2019

Letter From the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
Green Chip David Hammons
at Hauser & Wirth
–Travis Diehl
Whatever Gets You
Through the Night
The Artists of Dilexi
and Wartime Trauma
–Jonathan Griffin
Generous Collectors How the Grinsteins
Supported Artists
–Catherine Wagley
Interview with
Donna Huanca
–Lindsy Preston Zappas
Working Artist Featuring Ragen Moss, Justen LeRoy,
and Bari Ziperstein
Text: Lindsay Preston Zappas
Photos: Jeff McLane
Reviews Sarah Lucas
at the Hammer Museum
–Yxta Maya Murray

George Herms and Terence Koh
at Morán Morán
–Matt Stromberg

Hannah Hur
at Bel Ami
–Michael Wright

Sebastian Hernandez
–Julie Weitz

(L.A. in N.Y.)
Alex Israel
at Greene Naftali
–Rosa Tyhurst

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Issue 16 May 2019

Trulee Hall's Untamed Magic Catherine Wagley
Ingredients for a Braver Art Scene Ceci Moss
I Shit on Your Graves Travis Diehl
Interview with Ruby Neri Jonathan Griffin
Carolee Schneemann and the Art of Saying Yes! Chelsea Beck
Exquisite L.A. Claressinka Anderson
Joe Pugliese
Reviews Ry Rocklen
at Honor Fraser
–Cat Kron

Rob Thom
at M+B
–Lindsay Preston Zappas

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age
of Black Power, 1963-1983
at The Broad
–Matt Stromberg

Anna Sew Hoy & Diedrick Brackens
at Various Small Fires
–Aaron Horst

Julia Haft-Candell & Suzan Frecon
at Parrasch Heijnen
–Jessica Simmons

(L.A. in N.Y.)
Shahryar Nashat
at Swiss Institute
–Christie Hayden
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Issue 15 February 2019

Letter From the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
Letter to the Editor
Men on Women
Geena Brown
Eyes Without a Voice
Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto
Christina Catherine Martinez
Seven Minute Dream Machine
Jordan Wolfson's (Female figure)
Travis Diehl
Laughing in Private
Vanessa Place's Rape Jokes
Catherine Wagley
Interview with
Rosha Yaghmai
Laura Brown
Exquisite L.A.
Featuring: Patrick Martinez,
Ramiro Gomez, and John Valadez
Claressinka Anderson
Joe Pugliese
Reviews Outliers and American
Vanguard Art at LACMA
–Jonathan Griffin

Sperm Cult
–Matt Stromberg

Kahlil Joseph
–Jessica Simmons

Ingrid Luche
at Ghebaly Gallery
–Lindsay Preston Zappas

Matt Paweski
at Park View / Paul Soto
–John Zane Zappas

Trenton Doyle Hancock
at Shulamit Nazarian
–Colony Little

(L.A. in N.Y.)
Catherine Opie
at Lehmann Maupin
–Angella d'Avignon
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Issue 14 November 2018

Letter From the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
Celeste Dupuy-Spencer and Figurative Religion Catherine Wagley
Lynch in Traffic Travis Diehl
The Remixed Symbology of Nina Chanel Abney Lindsay Preston Zappas
Interview with Kulapat Yantrasast Christie Hayden
Exquisite L.A.
Featuring: Sandra de la Loza, Gloria Galvez, and Steve Wong
Claressinka Anderson
Photos: Joe Pugliese
Reviews Raúl de Nieves
at Freedman Fitzpatrick
-Aaron Horst

Gertrud Parker
at Parker Gallery
-Ashton Cooper

Robert Yarber
at Nicodim Gallery
-Jonathan Griffin

Nikita Gale
at Commonwealth & Council
-Simone Krug

Lari Pittman
at Regen Projects
-Matt Stromberg

(L.A. in N.Y.)
Eckhaus Latta
at the Whitney Museum
of American Art
-Angella d'Avignon
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Issue 13 August 2018

Letter From the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
Letter to the Editor Julie Weitz with Angella d'Avignon
Don't Make
Everything Boring
Catherine Wagley
The Collaborative Art
World of Norm Laich
Matt Stromberg
Oddly Satisfying Art Travis Diehl
Made in L.A. 2018 Reviews Claire de Dobay Rifelj
Jennifer Remenchik
Aaron Horst
Exquisite L.A.
Featuring: Anna Sew Hoy, Guadalupe Rosales, and Shizu Saldamando
Claressinka Anderson
Photos: Joe Pugliese
Reviews It's Snowing in LA
at AA|LA
–Matthew Lax

Fiona Conner
at the MAK Center
–Thomas Duncan

Show 2
at The Gallery @ Michael's
–Simone Krug

Deborah Roberts
at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles
–Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi

Mimi Lauter
at Blum & Poe
–Jessica Simmons

(L.A. in N.Y.)
Math Bass
at Mary Boone
–Ashton Cooper

(L.A. in N.Y.)
Condo New York
–Laura Brown
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Issue 12 May 2018

Poetic Energies and
Radical Celebrations:
Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger
Simone Krug
Interior States of the Art Travis Diehl
Perennial Bloom:
Florals in Feminism
and Across L.A.
Angella d'Avignon
The Mess We're In Catherine Wagley
Interview with Christina Quarles Ashton Cooper
Object Project
Featuring Suné Woods, Michelle Dizon,
and Yong Soon Min
Lindsay Preston Zappas
Photos: Jeff McLane
Reviews Meleko Mokgosi
at The Fowler Museum at UCLA
-Jessica Simmons

Chris Kraus
at Chateau Shatto
- Aaron Horst

Ben Sanders
at Ochi Projects
- Matt Stromberg

iris yirei hsu
at the Women's Center
for Creative Work
- Hana Cohn

Harald Szeemann
at the Getty Research Institute
- Olivian Cha

Ali Prosch
at Bed and Breakfast
- Jennifer Remenchik

Reena Spaulings
at Matthew Marks
- Thomas Duncan
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Issue 11 February 2018

Letter from the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
Museum as Selfie Station Matt Stromberg
Accessible as Humanly as Possible Catherine Wagley
On Laura Owens on Laura Owens Travis Diehl
Interview with Puppies Puppies Jonathan Griffin
Object Project Lindsay Preston Zappas, Jeff McLane
Reviews Dulce Dientes
at Rainbow in Spanish
- Aaron Horst

Adrián Villas Rojas
at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA
- Lindsay Preston Zappas

Nevine Mahmoud
at M+B
- Angella D'Avignon

Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960- 1985
at the Hammer Museum
- Thomas Duncan

Hannah Greely and William T. Wiley
at Parker Gallery
- Keith J. Varadi

David Hockney
at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (L.A. in N.Y.)
- Ashton Cooper

Edgar Arceneaux
at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (L.A. in S.F.)
- Hana Cohn
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Issue 10 November 2017

Letter from the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
Barely Living with Art:
The Labor of Domestic
Spaces in Los Angeles
Eli Diner
She Wanted Adventure:
Dwan, Butler, Mizuno, Copley
Catherine Wagley
The Languages of
All-Women Exhibitions
Lindsay Preston Zappas
L.A. Povera Travis Diehl
On Eclipses:
When Language
and Photography Fail
Jessica Simmons
Interview with
Hamza Walker
Julie Wietz
Object Project
Featuring: Rosha Yaghmai,
Dianna Molzan, and Patrick Jackson
Lindsay Preston Zappas
Photos by Jeff McLane
Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA
Regen Projects
Ibid Gallery
One National Gay & Lesbian Archives and MOCA PDC
The Mistake Room
Luis De Jesus Gallery
the University Art Gallery at CSULB
the Autry Museum
Reviews Cheyenne Julien
at Smart Objects

Paul Mpagi Sepuya
at team bungalow

Ravi Jackson
at Richard Telles

Tactility of Line
at Elevator Mondays

Trigger: Gender as a Tool as a Weapon
at the New Museum
(L.A. in N.Y.)
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Issue 9 August 2017

Letter from the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
Women on the Plinth Catherine Wagley
Us & Them, Now & Then:
Reconstituting Group Material
Travis Diehl
The Offerings of EJ Hill
Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi
Interview with Jenni Sorkin Carmen Winant
Object Project
Featuring: Rebecca Morris,
Linda Stark, Alex Olson
Lindsay Preston Zappas
Photos by Jeff McClane
Reviews Mark Bradford
at the Venice Biennale

Broken Language
at Shulamit Nazarian

Artists of Color
at the Underground Museum

Anthony Lepore & Michael Henry Hayden
at Del Vaz Projects


Analia Saban at
Sprueth Magers
Letter to the Editor Lady Parts, Lady Arts
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Issue 8 May 2017

Letter from the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
Kanye Westworld Travis Diehl
@richardhawkins01 Thomas Duncan
Support Structures:
Alice Könitz and LAMOA
Catherine Wagley
Interview with
Penny Slinger
Eliza Swann
Exquisite L.A.
taisha paggett
Ashley Hunt
Young Chung
Intro by Claressinka Anderson
Portraits by Joe Pugliese
Reviews Alessandro Pessoli
at Marc Foxx

Jennie Jieun Lee
at The Pit

Trisha Baga
at 356 Mission

Jimmie Durham
at The Hammer

Parallel City
at Ms. Barbers

Jason Rhodes
at Hauser & Wirth
Letter to the Editor
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Issue 7 February 2017

Letter from the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
Catherine Wagley
Put on a Happy Face:
On Dynasty Handbag
Travis Diehl
The Limits of Animality:
Simone Forti at ISCP
(L.A. in N.Y.)
Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi
More Wound Than Ruin:
Evaluating the
"Human Condition"
Jessica Simmons
Exquisite L.A.
Brenna Youngblood
Todd Gray
Rafa Esparza
Intro by Claressinka Anderson
Portraits by Joe Pugliese
Reviews Creature
at The Broad

Sam Pulitzer & Peter Wachtler
at House of Gaga // Reena Spaulings Fine Art

Karl Haendel
at Susanne Vielmetter

Wolfgang Tillmans
at Regen Projects

at Chateau Shatto

The Rat Bastard Protective Association
at the Landing
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Issue 6 November 2016

Letter from the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
Kenneth Tam
's Basement
Travis Diehl
The Female
Cool School
Catherine Wagley
The Rise
of the L.A.
Art Witch
Amanda Yates Garcia
Interview with
Mernet Larsen
Julie Weitz
Agnes Martin
Jessica Simmons
Exquisite L.A.
Analia Saban
Ry Rocklen
Sarah Cain
Intro by Claressinka Anderson
Portraits by Joe Pugliese
Made in L.A. 2016
at The Hammer Museum

Doug Aitken
at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA

at Tif Sigfrids

Jean-Pascal Flavian and Mika Tajima
at Kayne Griffin Corcoran

Mark A. Rodruigez
at Park View

The Weeping Line
Organized by Alter Space
at Four Six One Nine
(S.F. in L.A.)
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Issue 5 August 2016

Letter form the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
at The Underground Museum
Catherine Wagley
The Art of Birth Carmen Winant
Escape from Bunker Hill
John Knight
Travis Diehl
Ed Boreal Speaks Benjamin Lord
Art Advice (from Men) Sarah Weber
Routine Pleasures
at the MAK Center
Jonathan Griffin
Exquisite L.A.
Fay Ray
John Baldessari
Claire Kennedy
Intro by Claressinka Anderson
Portraits by Joe Pugliese
Reviews Revolution in the Making
at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel

Carl Cheng
at Cherry and Martin

Joan Snyder
at Parrasch Heijnen Gallery

Elanor Antin
at Diane Rosenstein

Performing the Grid
at Ben Maltz Gallery
at Otis College of Art & Design

Laura Owens
at The Wattis Institute
(L.A. in S.F.)
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Issue 4 May 2016

Letter from the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
Moon, laub, and Love Catherine Wagley
Walk Artisanal Jonathan Griffin
Marva Marrow's
Inside the L.A. Artist
Anthony Pearson
Mystery Science Thater:
Diana Thater
Aaron Horst
Informal Feminisms Federica Bueti and Jan Verwoert
Marva Marrow Photographs
Lita Albuquerque
Interiors and Interiority:
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Char Jansen
Reviews L.A. Art Fairs

Material Art Fair, Mexico City

Rain Room

Evan Holloway
at David Kordansky Gallery

Histories of a Vanishing Present: A Prologue
at The Mistake Room

Carter Mull
at fused space
(L.A. in S.F.)

Awol Erizku
at FLAG Art Foundation
(L.A. in N.Y.)
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Issue 3 February 2016

Letter from the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
Le Louvre, Las Vegas Evan Moffitt
iPhones, Flesh,
and the Word:
at Arturo Bandini
Lindsay Preston Zappas
Women Talking About Barney Catherine Wagley
Lingua Ignota:
Faith Wilding
at The Armory Center
for the Arts
Benjamin Lord
A Conversation
with Amalia Ulman
Char Jansen
How We Practice Carmen Winant
Share Your Piece
of the Puzzle
Federica Bueti
Amanda Ross-Ho Photographs
Erik Frydenborg
Reviews Honeydew
at Michael Thibault

Fred Tomaselli
at California State University, Fullerton

Trisha Donnelly
at Matthew Marks Gallery

Bradford Kessler
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Issue 2 November 2015

Letter from the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
Hot Tears Carmen Winant
Slow View:
Molly Larkey
Anna Breininger and Kate Whitlock
Americanicity's Paintings:
Orion Martin
at Favorite Goods
Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal
Layers of Leimert Park Catherine Wagley
Junkspace Junk Food:
Parker Ito
at Kaldi, Smart Objects,
White Cube, and
Château Shatto
Evan Moffitt
Melrose Hustle Keith Vaughn
Max Maslansky Photographs
Monica Majoli
at the Tom of Finland Foundation
White Lee, Black Lee:
William Pope.L’s "Reenactor"
Travis Diehl
Dora Budor Interview Char Jensen
Reviews Mary Ried Kelley
at The Hammer Museum

Tongues Untied
at MOCA Pacific Design Center

No Joke
at Tanya Leighton
(L.A. in Berlin)
Snap Reviews Martin Basher at Anat Ebgi
Body Parts I-V at ASHES ASHES
Eve Fowler at Mier Gallery
Matt Siegle at Park View
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Issue 1 August 2015

Letter from the Editor Lindsay Preston Zappas
Metaphysical L.A.
Travis Diehl
Art for Art’s Sake:
L.A. in the 1990s
Anthony Pearson
A Dialogue in Two
Synchronous Atmospheres
Erik Morse
with Alexandra Grant
at François Ghebaly
Jonathan Griffin
#studio #visit
with #devin #kenny
Mateo Tannatt
Jibade-Khalil Huffman
Slow View:
Discussion on One Work
Anna Breininger
with Julian Rogers
Reviews Pierre Huyghe

Mernet Larsen
at Various Small Fires

John Currin
at Gagosian, Beverly Hills

Pat O'Niell
at Cherry and Martin

A New Rhythm
at Park View

Unwatchable Scenes and
Other Unreliable Images...
at Public Fiction

Charles Gaines
at The Hammer Museum

Henry Taylor
at Blum & Poe/ Untitled
(L.A. in N.Y.)
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1301 PE
Anat Ebgi (La Cienega)
Anat Ebgi (Wilshire)
Arcana Books
Artbook @ Hauser & Wirth
Babst Gallery
Baert Gallery
Bel Ami
Canary Test
Carlye Packer
Charlie James Gallery
Château Shatto
Chris Sharp Gallery
Cirrus Gallery
Clay ca
Commonwealth & Council
Craft Contemporary
D2 Art (Inglewood)
D2 Art (Westwood)
David Kordansky Gallery
David Zwirner
Diane Rosenstein
François Ghebaly
Gana Art Los Angeles
George Billis Gallery
Giovanni's Room
Hamzianpour & Kia
Hannah Hoffman Gallery
Harper's Gallery
Hashimoto Contemporary
Heavy Manners Library
Helen J Gallery
Human Resources
Hunter Shaw Fine Art
in lieu
LaPau Gallery
Lisson Gallery
Lowell Ryan Projects
Luis De Jesus Los Angeles
MAK Center for Art and Architecture
Make Room Los Angeles
Matter Studio Gallery
Matthew Brown Los Angeles
MOCA Grand Avenue
Monte Vista Projects
Morán Morán
Moskowitz Bayse
Nazarian / Curcio
Night Gallery
Nino Mier Gallery
NOON Projects
O-Town House
One Trick Pony
Paradise Framing
Park View / Paul Soto
Patricia Sweetow Gallery
Regen Projects
Reparations Club
r d f a
REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater)
Roberts Projects
Royale Projects
Sean Kelly
Sebastian Gladstone
Shoshana Wayne Gallery
Smart Objects
Steve Turner
Stroll Garden
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery
The Box
The Fulcrum
The Hole
The Landing
The Poetic Research Bureau
The Wende Museum
Thinkspace Projects
Tierra del Sol Gallery
Tiger Strikes Astroid
Tomorrow Today
Track 16
Tyler Park Presents
USC Fisher Museum of Art
UTA Artist Space
Various Small Fires
Village Well Books & Coffee
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Libraries/ Collections
Baltimore Museum of Art (Baltimore, MD)
Bard College, CCS Library (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY)
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University of California Irvine, Langston IMCA (Irvine, CA)
University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA)
Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, MN)
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Yale University Library (New Haven, CT)

Trace, Place, Politics: Julie Mehretu’s Coded Abstractions

Julie Mehretu, Six Bardos: Transmigration (2018). 31-color, 2-panel aquatint, 98 x 74 inches. Image courtesy of Gemini G.E.L., LLC, © Julie Mehretu and Gemini G.E.L., LLC. Photo: Ollie Hammick, © White Cube.

In a short treatise on drawing, philosopher Alain Badiou asserts that art fundamentally constitutes “a description without [a] place”1—an elusive phrase that can confer endless meanings. In a general artistic context, we can consider a description without a place as a language and a set of terms (visual, material, and/or conceptual) that coalesce to form new and unfamiliar spaces or environments—settings that are tangential to, if not utterly unmoored from, our own quotidian world. Badiou distinguishes drawing, which is forged from the nothingness of a blank substrate, as one of art’s more evasive and placeless mediums: its complex interplay between mark, surface, and space embodies a “moveable reciprocity between existence and inexistence.”2

Interestingly, while this definition of drawing feels particularly well-suited to abstraction, Badiou declines to make any concrete distinction between abstraction and figuration, instead opting for the more metaphysical observation that “there is drawing when some trace without place makes as its place an empty surface.”3 This poetic summation struck me as a relevant framework for considering Julie Mehretu’s vast and cavernous canvases, which themselves teeter on a knife-edge of place and nonplace, being and nonbeing, and as such propose drawing as a porous site for the intertwining of the two.4 While in one sense this translates to a negotiation between figuration and abstraction, her work dives further than that still, carving a more oblique space where the gesturally poetic and unequivocally political can exist simultaneously. 

As evidenced by her impressive mid-career retrospective currently on view at LACMA, Mehretu’s works meld abstract, otherworldly marks—strikes, lines, scribbles, glyphs (all of which Badiou would characterize as marks without a place)—with diffuse yet meticulous renderings of actual, concrete places: ghostly facades of buildings in Berlin (Berliner Plätze, 2009), the contentious urbanism of Cairo’s Tahrir Square (Cairo, 2013), disembodied maps of Addis Ababa (Transcending: The New International, 2003), the sprawling geometries of metropolitan New York (Invisible Line [collective], 2011). While in many ways, Mehretu’s oeuvre embodies Badiou’s poetic incarnation of drawing as a liminal, placeless place, her approach greatly complicates his premise. Foremost, by directly naming the geographic and architectural locations that she mines, Mehretu transcribes specific sites—not placeless ones. In doing so, she invokes the complicated histories, politics, and traumas wedded to each aforementioned place to impart additional layers of contextual information. This anchors her abstractions to the tumult of the real, physical world, rather than an unlocatable one. She generally communicates this information through her titles, detailed exhibition didactics, and other tangential texts—while, in the works themselves, opaque, undulating marks tend to obscure any overtly identifiable visual schema. In this way, her abstract, recontextualized canvases, otherwise seemingly removed from the politics of representation, assert engagement with geopolitical discourse, which ultimately positions them as Postmodern history paintings. As such, Mehretu’s work renounces abstraction as a politically neutral exercise, instead deploying its penchant for poeticism, expressionism, and metaphor as tools for interpreting and refracting difficult sociopolitical realities. 

The massive, monochrome work Transcending: The New International (2003) is an early expression of this methodology. An abstract miasma of rushing marks overwhelms intricate yet disjointed cartographic representations of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and several other African cities (Accra, Ghana; Abuja, Nigeria; Arusha, Tanzania), incorporating everything from aerial maps and transit routes to architectural diagrams. In totality, the composition appears more as a blistering storm cloud or a teeming organism than any cityscape—clumps of blood-vessel-type lines snake through labyrinthine corridors, behind which slivers of crisp architecture peek through. While contextually removed and abstracted so as to conjure new, non-existent spaces—from interstellar nebulae to vague watery landscapes to molten explosions—the work’s urban renderings-turned-painterly marks nonetheless remain indelibly tethered to the real, terrestrial places from which they originate. In The New International, then, what initially reads as an abstract gestural tempest also presents as a tumultuous interpretation of the underlying existential turmoil that plagues postcolonial Africa, still tender from imperialism’s brutal wounds. By using Addis Ababa—both the artist’s birthplace and the capital of an African nation that resisted colonial occupation—as the foundation for a hybridized architectural matrix, the composition suggests a utopian megalopolis defending itself from a torrid onslaught of colonial terror. As a monumental, unnamable landscape, this work quite literally hovers between a mode of abstraction that eschews external referents and a mode of figuration that directly invokes the political conflicts of the extant world. 

In later works, Mehretu incorporates photographic elements into her process, an inclusion that deepens her work’s sense of urgency and amplifies its political potency. In Epigraph, Damascus (2016), a towering six-panel, multi-plate etching (the technical complexities of which are a staggering triumph of printmaking), Mehretu begins with a photograph of a destroyed neighborhood in the war-ravaged Syrian city, which she then blurs in Photoshop before layering with a scattering of found architectural blueprints. All of this she then renders in photogravure (a process that involves etching a photograph into a copper plate). A dense forest of inky calligraphic marks, ranging from wispy blurs to thick impastoed striations, form the next few layers, functioning as gestural masks that obscure the work’s photographic foundations. Each scroll-like paper panel is framed discreetly but installed flush against the next so as to form a long, horizontal landscape. The effect is one of a barely decipherable, apparitional city decimated by a plague of violent gestures, as if her marks were swarming locusts disoriented by the fog of war. Here, the title’s use of the word epigraph offers a linguistic clue as to the work’s purpose: an elegiac inscription on a historical monument or a brief literary preamble. These references dually suggest the city’s ending and its new beginning, each inscribed by violence and its aftermath. The work’s language —quite literally and through abstraction—memorializes an eviscerated city while also poetically mourning the unending savagery of interminable cycles of political violence. 

Julie Mehretu, Invisible Sun (algorithm 4, first letter form) (2014). Ink and acrylic on canvas, 119.5 × 167 inches. © Julie Mehretu. Image courtesy of the artist and LACMA. Photo: Carolina Merlano.

While Mehretu’s use of found news photography translates as a gesture of direct political engagement, her act of blurring these photographs reads as a forceful shrouding of this association. The resulting images exhibit a similar tension between appearance and reality. As a momentary index of loss, the photograph of Damascus points to the aftermath of carnage while still being several degrees removed from it. As a strictly visual survey, it also fails to adequately account for the non-structural scars of war—in Damascus, even rebuilding besieged neighborhoods will not fill the gaping void of absence left by countless victims and the newfound dearth of young men, killed either as fighters or for garnering suspicion of being such.5 By imposing a Photoshop-induced blur, Mehretu not only further pushes the photograph into the depths of abstraction, but also materially eulogizes the absent and the unseen, lending gestural weight to the cavities that violence leaves behind. In one sense, this act of blurring reduces unspeakable imagery to a purely formal, indecipherable state—a potentially ruthless aestheticization of trauma. Perhaps that’s the point. The blur can also be read as merely referencing the collective manner in which disaster photography is consumed, swiftly registered on a constantly scrolling screen (which itself is peppered with a barrage of other media) before being even more swiftly disregarded. 

Mehretu’s approach of gesturally obscuring blurred photographs of catastrophe also recalls the post-WWII work of Gerhard Richter, who notably remarked that “[a]gony, desperation, and helplessness cannot be represented except aesthetically.”6 The ineffable nature of mass trauma can elicit intimate and visceral aesthetic reactions. Many of Mehretu’s works using found photographs drift from a focus on cartography to a narrower focus on more personal scenes of suffering, opting for the carnal immediacy of the body itself—a protest in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder by a police officer in Ferguson, MO is featured in Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson (2016); cluttered detention centers for children in California and Texas are pictured in Haka (and Riot) (2019). 

More intimately scaled and less assuming than her aforementioned canvases (although still quite monumental), Being Higher I and Being Higher II (both 2013) each suggest flayed bodies maimed by violence. According to exhibition texts, they were each inspired by recurring events of police brutality in the U.S. as well as the unfolding revolutions of the Arab Spring in the Middle East. For both works, Mehretu dragged her own body across the canvas—limbs and fingerprints emerge from a hazy constellation of ashen ink, the frenetic movement of which recalls splayed viscera. The meter of abstraction here is more homogenous, limited as it is to the gestures put forth by human appendages alone. By using her own physical form to index the presence and absence of the body, she more directly invokes the intimate anguish of bodies in peril, elevating her work’s sense of political urgency to a state of existential crisis. 

Being Higher I and II’s use of bodily abstraction as a tool for grappling with violence finds historical precedence in works by Yves Klein and David Hammons, both of whom similarly used experimental mark-making processes to reference bodies in the throes of trauma. While Yves Klein’s notorious Anthropométries series may be the most obvious aesthetic counterpart to Mehretu’s Being Higher works, his fire paintings from the early ’60s offer a darker yet more apt comparison. Partially inspired by his experience of seeing the “Hiroshima shadows,” the ghostly silhouettes of atomic bomb victims seared onto the city’s cement surfaces by the inconceivable heat of the nuclear blast,7 the fire paintings’ violent abstractions likewise point to bodies rendered viciously absent by war. (With their somber, shadowy human forms, Being Higher I and II are also jarringly reminiscent of the Hiroshima shadows themselves.) Not long after Klein’s experiments, David Hammons used his body as an expressionistic tool, imprinting his skin and limbs directly onto paper to form agonizing compositions that spoke to the abject brutality of the civil rights era and the Vietnam War. In each of these instances, abstract representations of the body (and its absence) become, almost paradoxically, the most direct avenue through which to give form to the violent horrors of political conflict. In other words, in the wake of human destruction too abominable to adequately translate, figuration as a tool for depicting the human experience likewise breaks apart.

Julie Mehretu’s canvases certainly exude this sentiment. While still embracing the liminal poetics of abstraction, her work suggests that the placeless, traceless, blank page or canvas can simultaneously function as an arena to interpret, isolate, and ultimately bear witness to historical (and contemporaneous) catastrophe. And although the artist herself has referred to drawing as “an activist gesture,”8 her abstractions avoid functioning as motivating catalysts for sociopolitical change; rather, her expressionistic marks emote the riotous and hopelessly fatal tensions that underwrite our current historical moment. As contemporary history paintings, her works ultimately infer the language of abstraction as political metaphor, with the breakdown of the picture plane directly correlating to the breakdown of civic order and the violent dismantling of our own collective moral fabric. 


1. An earlier version of this essay misidentified a 2019 work by Julie Mehretu. The title of the work is Haka (and Riot).

This essay was originally published in Carla issue 19.

Julie Mehretu (installation view) (2019-2020). © Julie Mehretu. Image courtesy of the artist and LACMA. Photo: © Museum Associates/LACMA.
Julie Mehretu (installation view) (2019-2020). © Julie Mehretu. Image courtesy of the artist and LACMA. Photo: © Museum Associates/LACMA.
Julie Mehretu, Being Higher II (2013). Ink and acrylic on canvas, 84 × 60 inches. Collection of Susan & Larry Marx. Image courtesy Neal Meltzer Fine Art, New York, © Julie Mehretu. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging.
Julie Mehretu, Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson (2016). Ink and acrylic on canvas, 84 x 96 inches. The Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles, © Julie Mehretu. Photo: Cathy Carver.
Julie Mehretu, Stadia II (2004). Ink and acrylic on canvas, 108 × 144 inches. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, gift of Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and Nicolas Rohatyn and A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund 2004. © Julie Mehretu. Image courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Julie Mehretu, Berliner Plätze (2009). Ink and acrylic on canvas, 119 x 167.25 inches. Commissioned by Deutsche Bank AG in consultation with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, © Julie Mehretu. Photo: Kristopher McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.
Julie Mehretu, Epigraph, Damascus (2016). Photogravure, sugar lift, aquatint, spit bite aquatint, and open bite, 8.1 x 18.8 feet. © Julie Mehretu. Image courtesy of the artist and LACMA. Photo: © Museum Associates/LACMA.


  1. Alain Badiou, “Drawing,” lacanian ink, Issue 28, Spring 2007.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Here, my suggestion of Mehretu’s work as “drawing” specifically refers to her use of complex mark-making techniques that meld methods of drawing, painting, and printmaking while also employing processes of erasure and layering. Her large-scale canvases converse in a hybrid language of drawing and painting that fluidly engages both modalities.
  5. Vivian Lee, “What ‘Victory’ Looks Like: A Journey Through Shattered Syria,” The New York Times, August 20, 2019,
  6. As quoted by Robert Storr, “Burnt holes, bloody holes, black holes: art after catastrophe,” Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962 (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2012), p. 244. 
  7. Paul Schimmel, “Painting the Void,” Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962 (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2012), p. 195 .
  8. As quoted by Christine Y. Kim, “Julie Mehretu (A Chronology in Four Parts),” Julie Mehretu (New York: Prestel, 2019), p. 56.

Jessica Simmons-Reid (MFA, School of the Art Institute of Chicago; BA, Brown University) is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree. She’s interested in the interstitial space between the language of abstraction and the abstraction of language, as well as the intermingling of poetry and politics. She has contributed essays and reviews to Carla and Artforum, among others.

More by Jessica Simmons-Reid