Mark Grotjahn

(Mostly about art, but with some remarks on writing style.)

From the 6/6/11 New Yorker, Andrea K. Scott’s brief “Critics Notebook: Face Value” on Mark Grotjahn’s new show in New York:

A note to art lovers lining up at Gagosian to see “Picasso and Marie-Thèrése, L’Amour Fou”: when you’re done, walk one block south. The relentlessly dazzling paintings in Mark Grotjahn’s new show at the Anton Kern gallery are descended from another of the Spaniard’s great loves – his passion for tribal masks, which sparked a radical synthesis of abstraction and portraiture. Stare long enough at the maelstroms of sinewy lines in Grotjahn’s apparently abstract big paintings and the lines will stare back, resolving into almond-shaped eyes above flaring nostrils and the curve of a grimace or grin. The real payoff here isn’t the emergence of faces, neat trick though it is – it’s the audacity of the paint handling. Working on larger than life-size sheets of cardboard (later mounted on linen), the L.A.-based artist lays the oil on thick with a palette knife. Long trails of short, stuttering strokes evoke the anxiety of painting in a post-Picasso, post-Pollack world. That the results feel so primal yet so self-aware makes Grotjahn’s show something close to a triumph.

This drew me to looking at more of Grotjahn’s work.

From his Wikipedia entry:

Mark Grotjahn (born 1968 in Pasadena, California, U.S.) is an American painter best known for abstract work and bold geometric paintings. He received his MFA from the University of California, Berkeley, and his BFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Grotjahn lives and works in Los Angeles.

In the mid 1990s, Grotjahn began working on a stream of densely worked colored pencil drawings, followed by oil paintings, which focused on perspective investigations such as dual and multiple vanishing points. His Butterfly Paintings are the artist’s most celebrated works to date. Here, he draws on Renaissance perspectival techniques for the structures and subjects of his multiple-vanishing-point butterfly patterns.

But it’s his “face paintings” that especially intrigue me. Here are two from a 2010 show in Los Angeles:

“Untitled (Face for Greece 843)”, 2009, Oil on cardboard mounted on linen. Courtesy Blum & Poe Gallery.

Untitled (Black Over Red Orange “Mean as a Snake” Face 842), 2009, Oil on cardboard mounted on linen. Courtesy Blum & Poe Gallery.

These are great big paintings, so their effect doesn’t really come across in photographs.

Now a contrast in writing style, between Andrea Scott’s directness and this review by Catherine Wagley, in her 3/12/10 “L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast” column on the website DailyServing (“an international forum for the contemporary visual arts”):

Mark Grotjahn’s current exhibition at Blum & Poe intermittently innovates and belongs.  Called Seven Faces, it’s full of lanky yet dense almost-abstractions, paintings with as much primitive gusto as de Kooning’s Woman and as much flat, psychedelic guile as Fred Tomaselli’s Geode. Surprisingly economical – oil has been applied on top of cardboard which has been stapled to stretched linen, and the paintings’ cavities and protrusions come from cut and stacked cardboard rather than lathered paint – each work consists of scraggly calculated stripes that all radiate from an imaginary focal point or boundary line. Tucked in among these stripes, eyes, the flat, symbolic kind that don’t claim to be windows into anything, glare into the space right in front of them. Sometimes, toothy monster mouths break through the stripes, as well.

Grotjahn’s work announces itself as smart. Whether his sleek, perspectival hipster abstractions, or these rougher, stranger faces, a Grotjahn painting exudes self-knowledge. It knows that it fits into a legacy, and embraces every nuance of that legacy from Picasso, whose distorted figures had similar, overly-wide petal-shaped eyes, to Johns, who was pioneered painterly but cooly controlled line-making; it knows that it’s derivative, but it also knows that it isn’t redundant and that it doesn’t seamlessly fit into any pre-existing category. This sort of uber-awareness doesn’t feel contrived, however; it feels like a personality trait.

I would recognize Grotjahn’s work anywhere because of its quirks. Obsession with perspective and symmetry may not be original but it has never quite looked the way Grotjahn makes it look – combining slightly cagey precision with paradoxically liberal painterliness. I like to think of Grotjahn as a big fan who found a signature not because he had something cataclysmic to say but because, like many artists before him, he wanted to talk about how perspective skews perception and how paint adheres to surface. To have a conversation, you need a voice. But you don’t always need an aggressive, groundbreaking clarion call.

This is High Art-Critic Style, starting with “intermittently innovates and belongs” and going on to “lanky yet dense” and “flat, psychedelic guile”, though painting that “exudes self-knowledge” and shows “uber-awareness”, and eventually to “slightly cagey precision” and “paradoxically liberal painterliness”, quirkily stretching ordinary language to fashion an ad-hoc (and very self-conscious) technical vocabulary, heavy with surprising abstractions.

Still, Wagley manages to give a good sense of the appearance and effect of these extraordinary paintings.

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