On Julie Mehretu and looking at art [visual art]

{© Tom Hill}

{liberatormagazine.com exclusive feature}

One of my favorite places to go after work or on one of those increasingly rare things known as a “free Saturday” is the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I particularly love their contemporary art collection. It was there a few days ago that I saw painter Julie Mehretu’s study in controlled chaos, “Mumbo Jumbo.”

Mehretu is Ethiopian-born, Michigan-raised and currently based in New York. I came across her work—which is concerned with "the multifaceted layers of place, space, and time that impact the formation of personal and communal identity"—a few years ago as grad student and haven’t been able to get her work off my mind since. I had only seen her work in books and online up until my most recent jaunt to SAAM and neither medium does her work justice. It has to be seen up close so you can appreciate the texture, the way she repeats delicate geometric shapes reminiscent of architectural drafts. The richness of the colors—greys, purples, golds, oranges. The geometry. The vibrancy.

Most of her work is easy to get lost in. I stared and stared, stepping as close as I could without alarming the guards, stepping away to see how the perspective changed, closing my eyes and opening them again, to see if what I remembered was what was on the canvas. A good half hour passed by before I realized it, and yet it felt like five minutes.

I do not know if looking at art is the same way for other people, but for me, it is a meditative experience. I get the same feeling as I do when I’m behind a camera composing, framing and shooting. I calm down. I breathe easier. I let my mind wander and come back to what’s in front of me again.

Looking at art—whether it’s a painting or sculpture or a photograph—creates a sense of calm, of time slowing down. It’s much needed in these marvelous times, when every little thing seems to be breaking, urgent news; when everyone seems to be expected to engage in insta-punditry and on-the-spot analysis.

It is a real pleasure to step back from that and into another person’s perspective on how the world looks and feels. It’s not only a pleasure, but an absolutely necessity if one wants to create a sense of calm amidst the chaos of everyday living.

Sometimes you don’t need to respond to the latest doomsday study. Sometimes you don’t need to grind. Sometimes you just need to stop and stare and contemplate.