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A shifting landscape

We asked the Associate Curator, Prints & Drawings to tell us more about an exciting new AGO acquisition of works by artist Julie Mehretu.  

Julie Mehretu. Algorithms, Apparitions and Translations

Julie Mehretu. Algorithms, Apparitions and Translations, 2013. One of a suite of five etchings. Etching with aquatint, spitbite, soft ground, hardground, drypoint and engraving in black and coloured ink on paper, Sheet: 79 × 95 cm. Purchase, with funds from the Trier-Fodor Fund, 2019. © Julie Mehretu, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery 2019/2322.

The characters in my maps plotted, journeyed, evolved, and built civilizations...”  

These are words from Ethiopian-born American artist Julie Mehretu, whose semi-abstract paintings and prints serve as a surreal documentation of the human impact on landscapes. Her signature markings are a type of historical account, representing everything from city development to war. 

Recently the Prints & Drawings department acquired five prints by Mehretu, the first of her works in the AGO Collection, on view now as part of Migrations of Line. The group of prints holds major significance, as at the time of their purchase they were her last prints made directly on copper plates, an intensive practice the busy artist’s schedule no longer permits. 

We asked Alexa Greist, AGO Associate Curator, Prints and Drawings, for more insight about the unique work of Mehretu and its importance to the AGO Collection.   

Alexa Greist, Associate Curator and R. Fraser Elliott Chair, Prints & Drawings, AGO:

The acquisition of five prints by Julie Mehretu is part of a larger plan to grow the collection of Prints & Drawings at the AGO by adding work by contemporary artists alongside historical works that complement and expand on the current strengths of the collection. For most of its history, the department of Prints & Drawings collected European works on paper from between the years 1400 to  1900, but in recent years, we started to expand our collecting and collaboration with our colleagues in other departments to take a more holistic view of the collection works on paper.  Additionally, seeking out the work of contemporary artists allows us to include more works by Black, Indigenous and other People of Colour artists whose work is much harder to locate before 1900.  

Julie Mehretu is an artist who I have long admired.  Since starting at the AGO, I hoped to add some of her work to the collection. When I saw these five prints at the Editions / Artists’ Books Fair in New York City in October of last year, they jumped out at me immediately.  Greg Burnett, the master printer offering them, also had a single work by the artist available, but bringing more than one piece by Mehretu into the collection, in this case a series of prints with the presence to stand alone in a gallery, was much more appealing. Algorithyms / Apparitions / Translations (2013) is a mature work, representative of Mehretu’s use of personally significant markings she developed through her career.  

Her sources of inspiration are varied and rich, including archival photographs, urban planning grids, comics, Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, graffiti, and modernist art and architecture.  These semi-abstract prints allude to landscape and movement and reflect the artist’s interest in migration and the marks left on the surface of the earth by human activity.  In a city where more than 60% of the population were not born in Canada, myself included, migration is a topic that represents the firsthand experience of so many and is part of the story of all non-Indigenous people living in Canada at some point in their personal histories.

Mehretu has stated that printmaking is ideally-suited to her visual language as it forces her to slow down and allows her to layer line upon line. Working in intaglio, in which the artist makes marks on a copper plate, and in particular with etching and other media involving the repeated exposure of a surface to acid that bites the marks into the metal, Mehretu can draw and draw again, seeing the changes evolve over hours and days. This approach informs her process for her drawings and large paintings.  Artists whose printmaking practice is tied to other aspects of their work allow audiences to take in more than simply what is represented in front of them in one medium.  

Don’t miss Migrations of Line: Julie Mehretu and Antoinette Bouzonnet-Stella , on view now on Level 1 in Gallery 127. 

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