Variations in Abstraction: Mehretu, Gonzales, and Lethbridge at John Bergguen

Julian Lethbridge, NYT, 2010 | Oil and paint stick on canvas, 70 x 56 inches. Courtesy John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco.

While the three artists in the current show at John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco can all be categorized as abstract painters—Julie Mehretu, Julian Lethbridge, and Wayne Gonzales—they represent three very different styles of abstraction. Each displays exquisite attention to detail and presentation, representing their own complex identities as artists, and the interconnected nature of their abstract practices as a whole. More after the jump!  —Nadiah Fellah, San Francisco contributor

Julie Mehretu, Auguries, 2010 | 12 panel aquatint with spit bite (from 48 plates), 87 x 180 inches. Courtesy John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco. Below: detail. Photos: Nadiah Fellah.

Paintings, drawings, and etchings by Ethiopian-born artist Julie Mehretu occupy the top floor of the gallery, and are true to her signature style of creating layered, three-dimensional pieces inspired by architectural blueprints and city plans. In Broken Obelisk, Mehretu uses a technique of building up layers of sprayed and sanded acrylic to resemble Mylar, a material associated with architectural drawings.

The centerpiece of the show, a 12-paneled etching, was printed at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, a printing factory that has drawn countless artists interested in translating their work into prints (Richard Serra, Elizabeth Murray, Richard Tuttle, etc.). Mehretu has employed an aquatint with spit bite technique to create multiple panels that flow together into a single, enormous composition titled Auguries. It is largely black and white, with lines of color that run throughout. In some passages, brushstrokes are visible, making it feel like a futuristic Japanese landscape painting. This particular printing technique has allowed her to layer darker markings over lighter washes, giving the piece a clouded effect in areas.

Installation view, Julian Lethbridge. Three Artists: Julie Mehretu, Wayne Gonzales, Julian Lethbridge at John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco.

Julian Lethbridge builds up his canvases in layers, with color gradations that make each layer distinct. Reminiscent of Jackson Pollock, save for the deliberateness of his brush on the surface, the work is rhythmic and highly textured. Some color schemes conjure nature; others have an urban graffiti vibe. One in particular, NYT,  is simultaneously reminiscent of the Sunday crossword puzzle and Pollack’s Autumn Rhythm at the Met.

Above: Julian Lethbridge, Untitled, 2010 | Oil and pigment stick in medium on linen, 36 x 30 inches. Below: Wayne Gonzales, Waiting Crowd, 2008 | Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 84 inches.

Adjacent to Lethbridge’s works are those of Wayne Gonzales, an artist whose paintings appear as ghostly optical illusions from afar, but are painstaking studies in grayscale tonal range up close. The suite of paintings chosen for this show are somewhat curious because Gonzales is largely a political artist, creating unsettling and sinister images that confront political and social issues, as well as critiques of power, wealth, and consumerism. His work Waiting Crowd has been exhibited in the past among appropriated images associated with the Kennedy assassination, making them seem restive and ominous. However, beside his black-and-white abstractions in the Berggruen show, they are simply pretty and decidedly non-controversial.

Overall, each of these artists has taken fascinating liberties with scale, color, and medium. Evocative of the abstract work of Pollock, Marden, and even the shapes and shades of Calder, the works in this show combine three artists’ interests in creating visually interesting compositions with experimental methods in painting.

Above: Installation view, Wayne Gonzales. Three Artists: Julie Mehretu, Wayne Gonzales, Julian Lethbridge at John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco. Below: (detail) Wayne Gonzales, Untitled, 2009 | Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 84 inches. Courtesy John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco.

The exhibition Three Artists: Julie Mehretu, Wayne Gonzales, Julian Lethbridge is on view through March 5th at John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco.

Nadiah Fellah is a curatorial assistant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).


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