Hood Museum conversation with artist Julie Mehretu explores the intersection of art and science
Last Friday, Mehretu joined a Dartmouth physics professor and a MoMA curator for a live conversation in the Hood’s auditorium.
On Nov. 12, the Hood Museum of Art hosted a conversation between artist Julie Mehretu, Museum of Modern Art curator Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi and physics professor Marcelo Gleiser as part of the Dr. Allen W. Root Contemporary Art Distinguished Lectureship. Led by Nzewi, the conversation spanned a variety of topics, from their shared experience as immigrants who lived under military dictatorships to the relationship between art and science and the tension between the known and unknown, both in physics and in art.
Mehretu’s art focuses on abstract, layered paintings that explore various themes: landscape, history, diaspora and immigration. Born in Addis Ababa, Mehretu has been living in the United States since the age of seven.
In 2018, the Hood acquired one of Mehretu’s paintings, “Iridium over Aleppo.” Mehretu created this painting over a few years by combining layers of screen-printed white paint and photographs of Aleppo after the Syrian civil war. After acquiring this painting, the Hood sought to host a conversation with Mehretu at Dartmouth. Hood Director John Stomberg emphasized the value of bringing Mehretu’s voice to Dartmouth because of the socially conscious nature of her work.
“We try to find artists whose work is represented in the collection or art historians whose scholarship aligns with or appeals to us,” Stomberg said. “Her work is technically virtuosic, and it’s socially engaged and deeply involved in current events. We definitely have a tendency to have socially engaged art on view because it fosters great conversations with students.”
Stomberg also noted the powerful abstract style of Mehretu’s work, and how it parallels the complex qualities of time and experience.
“She has a spectacular technique where each layer is coded in another in a very thin medium,” Stomberg said. “It is like time, and it’s also like experience, because our experience gets layered on one after the other, and as we look back, we look through the lens of all of our experiences. Her paintings are an excellent metaphor for the way we experience the world.”
During the lecture, Mehretu noted the importance of abstract painting in the expression of her creative vision. Mehretu noted how she pushes herself into a space of inventive creation in which intuition guides the painting — not calculated planning or rationale. Through this process, she forms paintings that attempt to communicate ideas or feelings that cannot be expressed through language.
“Through representative work, I can’t access the kind of multivalent ways that I want people to interact with the works and the subjective experience that can happen viscerally and that doesn’t have language or is not easily describable, which is what abstraction can afford,” Mehretu said. “And it also allows one to resist explaining who they are.”
Throughout the lecture, both Gleiser and Mehretu explored the connections between their varying work. Gleiser is a Brazilian theoretical physicist studying particle cosmology and the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth. Gleiser identified important harmonies between Mehretu’s art and his work.
“I can see why there is a synergy going on between what she does and the way I think,” Gleiser said. “In science we’re also trying to map reality, and she creates a sort of a figurative landscape of images that represent the human reality in the space that she’s inventing.”
Gleiser explained the tension between the innate human desire to know and our ultimate inability to understand everything. He discussed the futile attempts by physicists to develop a “theory of everything,” but emphasized that the presence of the unknown creates the conditions for meaning. Similarly, Mehretu described the affinity she feels with Gleiser on this subject.
“It’s really interesting because [Gleiser] shares the science of what we know about the world, and the universe, and the immensity of it, but there’s also an incredible amount that is unknown,” Mehretu said. “And it’s in the way he speaks about those unknowns that feels poetic. It feels very much like how I’m trying to make sense of the world in painting.”
This lecture openly asked profound questions about the fundamental human drive to discover, both in art and in science. Mehretu reflected on how this pursuit manifests through the creative process.
“In the creative process, it’s really like chasing a dragon,” said Mehretu. “And that dragon is a kind of revealing, or an emergence of something else through a process of rigorous thinking, making, and conceptually building something.”
Stomberg hoped this lecture would inspire students to fully understand the power of art and to bring this enhanced appreciation into the Dartmouth community.
“I hope students realize the potential for art to have deep, deep meaning at a societal level,” Stomberg said. “A lot of times we think about art as personal, but art can also be impactful in large communities or even nationally. I connect with Julie’s paintings personally, but that’s not why they’re important. She can make unbelievably challenging, beautiful works of art that also speak to the most pressing issues of the world we live in.”
Clara Pakman ’23, who attended the event, appreciated the broader scope of Mehretu’s work in examining political and social issues such as the Syrian civil war, Black Lives Matter protests and immigration.
“On campus we often think about these abstract discourses and ideas in academic journals, instead of real lived experience and real global events that are resonating and that other people are also living through, which are the kinds of experiences she brought to her art,” said Pakman. “It’s very important.”