“HOW DO YOU PAINT YOUR SLAVE?” artist Julie Mehretu wonders. She is looking at “Juan de Pareja,” a 1650 oil on canvas by Spanish painter Velázquez (1599–1660). She describes it as portrait of a black man with copper skin and brown eyes.

“He was one of his primary assistants and he was his slave… The American slave narrative is very different but this is a person who did not have his rights to himself. There is such irony in that set up. The fact that Velazquez could capture the complex emotion that comes from his own position as the owner of this person and what that denies that person…,” Mehretu says.

“There are certain paintings that stand out in a gallery that call you to them. Even with all of the other Velazquez’s in that room, this is one of the paintings that has always haunted me. It’s a big marker for me at the Met.”

“There are certain paintings that stand out in a gallery that call you to them. Even with all of the other Velazquez’s in that room, this is one of the paintings that has always haunted me. It’s a big marker for me at the Met.” — Julie Mehretu

ON VIEW AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM of Art in the European Paintings galleries, Mehretu discusses the portrait of “Juan de Pareja” as a part of the museum’s The Artist Project. Each season of the special video series asks 20 artists to share what they see when the look at the Met—what works and artists represented in the museum’s vast collection inspire and fascinate them.

 

Velazquez - Juan de Pareja - Met Museum  1971.86_16.1
VELAZQUEZ, “Juan de Pareja,” 1650 (oil on canvas). | Purchase, Fletcher and Rogers Funds, and Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), by exchange, supplemented by gifts from friends of the Museum, 1971.

 

Born in Ethiopia, Mehretu lives and works in New York. Her contemporary abstract paintings are the polar opposite of Velazquez’s Baroque portraits. But her large-scale canvases, defined by gestural, expressive strokes overlaid with mark making, reference the political implications and issues surrounding social agency that draw her to the portrait of de Pareja. Mehretu calls her paintings “story maps.” Her narratives are formed via abstracted images of histories, cultures and geographies.

By contrast, Velazquez defines Realism and Impressionism. Mehretu notes the way the painter captured his subject. She emphasizes that de Pareja’s pose is proud and dignified and marvels at the manner in which Velazquez gives a “radiance” to his face and “articulates” the lace of the shawl. There is a “gentleness” of his brush on the face in the depiction of the mouth, lips and nostrils, she says.

“You feel like you are encountering a real human being [rather than a painted portrait],” she says.”To be able to capture the complete humanity of someone you think of as not completely human.… “There is incredible contradiction there that blows my mind, actually.”

“To be able to capture the complete humanity of someone you think of as not completely human.… “There is incredible contradiction there that blows my mind, actually.” — Julie Mehretu

THE MET ANNOUNCED THE ARTISTS participating in the fifth season of The Artist Project on Feb. 29. In addition to Mehretu, Rashid Johnson and Wangechi Mutu are among the artists featured in the lasted cohort. Johnson explains what impresses him about Robert Frank’s photography. The work of Austrian painter Egon Schiele is a draw for Mutu.

Thus far, 100 artist have participated in the online project. Previous seasons have also featured critically recognized African American artists, including Mark Bradford, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas. The final sixth season of the project will be launched in June. CT

 

 

Rashid Johnson on Photographer Robert Frank
Describing himself as an artist who works in several mediums, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Johnson says he was introduced to the work of Robert Frank at a very early stage. “It’s interesting him being a German Jew born in Switzerland who is basically a nomad and yet he notices what happening in this country in 1955 and uses it as a point of emphasis for his photography in a book that he calls ‘The Americas,'” Johnson says.

 

 

Wangechi Mutu on Austrian Painter Egon Schiele
Mutu splits her time between Brooklyn, N.Y. and Nairobi, Kenya, where she was born. “I make drawings in my sketchbooks before I get into larger paintings,” she says. “When I discovered Egon Schiele I realized that a lot of his work was just on small sheets of paper. The power, the simplicity, and the clarity in his line is absolutely dumbfounding.”