MARK GROTJAHN (B. 1968)
MARK GROTJAHN (B. 1968)
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MARK GROTJAHN (B. 1968)

Untitled (Mouth of Japanese Tiger 41.41)

Details
MARK GROTJAHN (B. 1968)
Untitled (Mouth of Japanese Tiger 41.41)
signed 'GROTJAHN' (lower right); titled and dated 'Untitled (Mouth of Japanese Tiger 41.41), 2010' (on the overlap)
oil on cardboard mounted on linen
60 1⁄4 x 48 1⁄2 in. (153 x 123.2 cm.)
Painted in 2010.
Provenance
Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2011

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Ana Maria Celis
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Lot Essay

Mark Grotjahn is one of the most respected painters of the twenty-first century and is widely celebrated for his masterful combinations of conceptual and medium-based inquiries into the medium of paint. A striking work from the artist’s famed Faces series, Untitled (Mouth of Japanese Tiger 41.41) is a powerful example of Grotjahn’s ability to pull from the canon of art history and reinvigorate the tropes of the twentieth-century to dizzying effect. Prowling its way through the vibrant surface, an animalistic power surges as the tiger’s stripes merge with the marks made by the artist’s brush. New York Times critic Roberta Smith emphasized this fact when she wrote about this sequence, saying, "Mark Grotjahn's new paintings are harsh, elegant things that enthrall the eye and splinter the mind. They 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 particular, these large, vertical cardboard-on-canvas works appear to feast on the painting and sculpture of early Modernism, when abstraction and representation were not seen as mutually exclusive. Possessing a torrential force, they are not so much covered with thatches of thrashing, tensile lines as bursting with them, as with live, barely controlled wires…" (R. Smith, "Mark Grotjahn: Nine Faces," in The New York Times, May 12, 2011). Grotjahn’s propensity for working in disparate styles throughout his career is telling of an abiding interest in examining painting for its physical properties as well as its historical trajectory. Following the mimetic sign paintings of the 1990s and the brilliant questioning of perspective in his butterfly works, the expressive, chaotic faces allow the artist to fully explore the point where process meets representation and where abstraction fuses into powerful recognition.

Bursting with activity, Grotjahn covers the entirety of his four-by-five foot composition with sweeping kinetic lines and a dazzling array of colors. The artist embraces the fluid, slick nature of his materials and gives in to the calligraphic flow of each mark. As the dashes of color intersect with their neighbors, the surface vibrates and changes. As Robert Storr noted, “on top of this already dynamic surface, the artist applies heavy impasto with a combination of brush and palette knife that causes colours to traverse, tailgate, and smear into each other, resulting in a constant chromatic cackle as complementary and secondary contrasts spark and flare like chain reaction fireworks” (R. Storr, “LA Push-Pull/Po-Mo-Stop-Go”, Mark Grotjahn, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, London, 2009, p. 7).

Out of this visual barrage comes a grinning feline face, its toothy sneer askew at the bottom of the composition opened in a jagged grimace. Just above center, two almond eyes with burning, intensely circular pupils gaze past the viewer in a powerful stare that anchors the rest of the work and aids in our pareidolia. A grouping between the eyes and mouth symbolizes an elongated snout with flared nostrils. What at first might seem a completely abstract jumble of thin lines and energetic loops morphs into the bristling, hungry face of a stylized tiger. Less naturalistic and more akin to the ornate rendering of a fu dog, guardian lion, or dragon in traditional Japanese and Chinese painting, Grotjahn pushes and pulls at our understanding of the picture plane by introducing slight perspective in the face’s tilt and flattening the whole thing into the canvas with a scrawled signature on the right side.

Part of his much-lauded Faces series, Untitled (Mouth of Japanese Tiger 41.41) was painted around the same time as the works included in Grotjahn’s celebrated exhibitions at both Anton Kern Gallery (Nine Faces, New York, 2011) and Blum & Poe (Seven Faces, Los Angeles, 2010). Though not part of either of these displayed groupings, the present work is markedly similar in its execution and stems from the same painterly impulse and studio investigations as its brethren. The Faces are at once representative works as well as abstract explosions that try desperately to harness and direct their own raw visual power. The viewer can become entranced by the very process on display, watching each line skitter and sweep through the unruly mass, following the brush and palette knife on its track. Upon stepping back, however, the mélange coalesces into a breathtaking visage that invites an absorptive meditation in the face of overwhelming chaos. The Faces paintings, their categorization difficult to describe, are touched upon by scholar Mark Prince as he reflects, “The facial symbols—which the context of the Face series leads us to expect—are everywhere and nowhere. Subject and object melt into each other, the human self into the otherness of the unhuman nature of leaves, branching boughs, dense undergrowth; or, in contrast with the organic implications of both, into the inorganic materiality of pigment. The ‘I’ of an eye doubles as the contour of a leaf, or merely as an arc of stippled oil paint” (M. Prince, "The Divided Self," in Mark Grotjahn: Circus Circus, exh. cat., Freiburg, Kunstverein Freiburg, 2014, p. 27). It is necessary to view two ideas of the work at once in order to more fully grasp Grotjahn’s intent. The abstract turmoil rendered in a colorful scrawl on a dark ground feeds into a more overarching conversation about mask-like visages and cultural allusions within the history of painting.

Consciously constructing a verdant narrative between his work and those artists that came before, Grotjahn makes reference to his predecessors in a calculated, investigative manner. Looking back through the history of art, one might find a certain affinity between works like Untitled (Mouth of Japanese Tiger 41.41) and the multifaceted abstractions of Pablo Picasso. Indeed, the Cubist master’s predilection for invoking the graphic elements of tribal masks has been noted on more than one occasion when speaking about the Faces paintings, but it is important to note that Grotjahn does not pull from the art and artifacts of indigenous peoples, but rather crafts his visual conversation around his own experience with Picasso through time spent with his grandfather’s art books as a child. “When you first declare yourself an avant-garde artist, you know, like in your teens or when you get to art school, Picasso is sort of the first stop,” Grotjahn has confessed rather matter-of-factly. “You draw a face with multiple eyes at a weird angle and that’s your avant-garde statement. But to do that as an adult—knowing the cliché that it can be—to take that language and try making good work is something I find challenging and worth pursuing” (M. Grotjahn, quoted in B. Powers, “Behind the Mask: An Interview with Mark Grotjahn”, Muse, no. 39, 2014, p. 30-37). The challenge of working within a set of stylistic principles or exploring a specific idea to its fullest is what has pushed Grotjahn to continuously reassess his own working habits and constantly approach his own proclivities with such voracity. Never content to play it safe, the artist seeks primal energy through his constantly evolving practice and chooses subjects that evoke his own fervor for creation. Perhaps it is fortuitous then that the current example roars into our consciousness once more in 2022, the Year of the Tiger.

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