Julie Mehretu's paintings are flat, but their many layers take on great dimensionality. They make you feel as if you're flying above the clouds, looking down at the earth with x-ray vision, or layering Google Earth map and satellite views. One layer of line drawings depicts architectural and structurally allusive elements. Another layer might have bold geometrical slashes with hard edges, suggesting direction or movement. In some paintings, hazy washes of translucent color permeate areas. And yet another layer contains inky black marks, often smudged, blurred, or erased. I wished they were in Photoshop so I could examine each layer by itself, but then part of the fun is spending time mentally isolating the layers.
Her current show, Liminal Squared, at Marian Goodman (24 W 57th) through June 22, consists of paintings and etchings done in the past three years, after the start of Arab Spring. The plans of monuments, streets, civic structures, tombs, and more, serve as vessels or ciphers to which she adds the human gesture. Compressing these various "permanent" structures with symbols of evanescent bioforms has the mind-spinning effect of great humility as well as optimism for change. Another trick: stand close to appreciate the completely contemporary combination of technology and touch; back up enough, the paintings evoke highly detailed ancient Chinese landscape paintings.
You can learn more about Mehretu in this Art:21 video, where she's working on a massive commission.