PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST

These days so much attention is given to "emerging artists" that you'd think there was no other kind--and, at 34, Julie Mehretu (pronounced merit-two) isn't particularly precocious. But she's been in the Whitney Biennial, had a solo show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (possibly the best contemporary institution in the country) and seen one of her abstract paintings installed in the newly redone Museum of Modern Art.

Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa of an Ethiopian father (now a geography professor in the United States) and a white American mother from Alabama. She was schooled in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Senegal, and now works and lives in a Harlem, N.Y., loft with her artist/partner who's about to give birth to their first child in May. She reads such heady material as the French situationist philosophers, and looks at Japanese comic books.

Is all this what propels her large (up to 20 feet across), complex, swirlingly precise paintings? "Well, that's an obvious reading," Mehretu says with a smile. "But at one point, I wanted to go to seminary, and before graduate school I was all about traditionally pushing oil paint around." These days she works on drawings influenced by aerial maps and architectural plans, then leaps to those canvases in which a silica-enhanced acrylic medium adds literally translucent levels of complexity. "All of this stuff is layered inside me, all these parts of who I am. Two sides of me do battle: the conceptual side and the visual side." But she concedes there's "an underlying narrative" revealed in such titles as "Renegade Delirium" and "Transcending: The New International."

Large ambition can inflate an emerging artist's head. But Mehretu seems to have her priorities straight. She enjoys being on the wall at the new zillion-dollar MoMA--"It's cool to be in with all those artists I've admired "--while understandably worrying about the "pressure, fear and angst" lurking inside her fast career start. Still, her overriding concern is, "Will I be able to make a group of paintings in three years that's interesting to me--and someone else--to look at?" It's the right question for an artist, and we're guessing that the answer is yes.