While a clear thread continues to run throughout Mark Grotjahn’s work, it wasn’t until he began to employ a less rigid hand to his practice that his approach to painting underwent a substantial change.
This change wasn’t one Grotjahn necessarily chose to make. Rather, the catalyst came from a tear to his rotator cuff and a break in his shoulder bone, both of which prevented him from working at the same capacity with which he was accustomed.
In the mid 1990’s, Grotjahn was spending hours upon hours in the studio, laboring over his densely worked drawings that demanded his uninterrupted physical attention. These, along with the oil paintings that followed and comprise his Butterfly series — a body of work rooted in perspectival techniques that include multiple vanishing points and morphing geometrics — called for dedication and a systematic rigor that Grotjahn could not endure after his injury.
Limited to working in two-hour increments, Grotjahn began to experiment with less demanding approaches to painting, and in doing so, he produced what Roberta Smith for The New York Times would later review as
harsh, elegant things that [don’t only] enthrall the eye and splinter the mind [but] emphasize painting as a psychic and bodily process fueled in part by the devouring and digesting of previous art to formulate a new synthesis.
In addition to limiting the time he spent painting, everything changed, even his canvas, which Grotjahn constructed by affixing large sheets of cardboard together. Not only did the cardboard provide Grotjahn with an interesting texture upon which he could apply thick layers of oil paint, but it provided him with a medium with which he could actively interact, build upon, and carve into for the purpose of providing an added dimension.
While Grotjahn’s use of geometrics in his Butterfly series made sense, it’s been interesting to see how he’s managed to maintain the use of straight lines and simple geometric forms as a basis for his loose and seemingly spontaneous Face paintings. No matter how torrential his work becomes, distinct forms — ellipses and circles – can often be found, as as iterated by William Corwin for Frieze,
emanat[ing] from a central point, [thus producing] an atypical [yet] symmetrical organization.
It wasn’t until Grotjahn began his Face paintings that the artist’s work began to overtly transcend a shamanic quality, reflective of early modernism’s fascination with primitivism, as expressed in the early works of Picasso and Matisse, among others.
This distinction appears to have grown out of Grotjahn’s foray with sculpture, which he had looked to as a way to unwind after spending long days in the studio (before his injury). As described by Jori Finkel for The New York Times,
Grotjahn would [often] unwind by taking empty supply boxes or beer cartons and gluing on toilet-paper tubes as noses.
Incidentally, these organically evolved into an impressive body of work worthy of its own merit.
The cardboard sculptures had never intended to be anything other than an outlet for Grotjahn who says he simply saw them as an opportunity to
get dirty and messy [and] to be expressive in a different way.
Now, cast in bronze, his Masks haven’t just gained recognition for their artistic contribution, but they provide a clear link in Grotjahn’s ever evolving lineage of work.
Last Friday, Blum and Poe held its opening reception for the artist’s newest series. Coming on the heels of two European exhibitions, Fifteen Faces marks Grotjahn’s seventh solo presentation with the gallery and features a suite of fifteen new works informally referred to as “Indians” and “Non-Indians.”
Each painting on layered cardboard is grounded by a central, white vertical axis. Reminding viewers of comparisons once made between Grotjahn’s monochromatic Butterfly series and Barnett Newman’s “zip” paintings, this prevailing central line provides a backbone from which each composition emerges.
Although the pieces that comprise Fifteen Faces appear to have been as aggressively worked as the artist’s previous Face paintings, a hint of control seems to be edging its way back into Grotjahn’s work. This in no way suggests that any piece in the exhibition lacks the same vibrancy that has consistently characterized Grotjahn’s paintings in recent years. On the contrary, Fifteen Faces is that more compelling. This is because each painting imbues an unexpected calm that would otherwise seem at odds with Grotjahn’s determined hand. Amazingly, his various markings collectively yield an intense orchestration of bright and bold colored lines that swim and swirl atop darkened backgrounds in an unidentifiable yet beautiful configuration of unity.
Fifteen Faces will remain on exhibition at Blum and Poe through June 20. Blum and Poe is located at 2727 South La Cienega Boulevard, just north of Washington Boulevard in Culver City. Gallery hours are from 10 am until 6 pm, Tuesday through Saturday. For additional information, please consult the gallery online via www.blumandpoe.com
Mark Grotjahn, “Untitled” (Indian #5 Face 45.50), 2014, oil on cardboard mounted on linen, 50 3/8 x 40 1/4 in. © Courtesy of the artist and Blum and Poe.