Invented Worlds

With all of the bad news in the world today—terrorism, melting ice caps, bird flu—it seems only reasonable that some artists might construct alternate worlds from their imagination. Yet such artists don't always have to become dreamy escapists, monks or minimalists. Instead, they might confront popular fears literally, by darkening their constructed worlds with emissaries of the ominous.

Though many think of the Renaissance as an optimistic age, it too was plagued by war and natural calamity. Giotto, the Early Renaissance fresco painter, painted a stage-set Italian hill-town haunted by winged demons. Later, an aging Leonardo created rhapsodic maelstroms. His journals show billowing and flowing storms that swallowed cities and land. Though he begins with a naturalist's eye for wind and water, soon the drawings seem visionary, even apocalyptic. Leonardo seems to sweep away any notion of humankind's rebirth in storms of black chalk.  {C}

Such profundity of imagination surfaced again in last year's exhibit by the Whitney Museum, "Remote Viewing: Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing." One of its artists, Julie Mehretu, creates billboard-sized drawings that remind the viewer of Leonardo's apocalyptic drawings. First, she traces projections of architectural plans and grids with ink pen onto plastic sheets mounted on canvas. Next, she overlays swirling, explosive lines and washes. The viewer feels Godlike, viewing a vast, fragmented landscape of buildings threatened by a frenetic force of nature—in this case, the artist's own hand. Just as in times past, even fantastic worlds suffer from the storms of daily life.

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