Bristling with ecstatic energy and seductive power, Untitled (S III Released to France Face 43.14) represents one of the most exciting painterly projects of the twenty-first century. This large-scale canvas is a significant work from Mark Grotjahn’s highly acclaimed series of Face Paintings, which combine expressive abstraction and kaleidoscopic hues with strong connections to the mask-like faces rendered by Picasso and Matisse. A reproduction can never fully suffice to convey the complexity and ambiguity of these works. Their savage beauty, which is underpinned by a conceptual approach to process and a deep understanding of painting’s historical evolution, has found admirers worldwide, with examples acquired by numerous public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Tate, London; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; and The Broad, Los Angeles.
Executed with fearless daring and a masterful handling of viscous oils, the present work asserts the role of paint as a subject on equal terms with the nominal face. The composition is a riot of movement and color, with a maelstrom of intertwined lines concealing ellipses and circles that intimate humanoid features. A palette of various whites, greys, black, yellow and myriad tones of red achieves an impressive unanimity across the canvas’s animated surface. The corrugated texture of the paint (caused by the underlying cardboard) is essential to the harmony of these dissonant color voices, with each area of the densely-knotted structure splintered by contrasting hues and tonal variations. Robert Storr has eloquently described how the colors in Grotjahn’s Face Paintings “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”, in Mark Grotjahn, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, London, 2009, p. 7).
Working on a sheet of primed cardboard mounted on linen, the artist has built up an intricate layered surface by using a palette knife to apply his oil paint in a thick impasto. Striated bands of pigment are carefully laid down, wet-on-wet, forming a thicket of feather, or fern-like, lines that fracture any fixed perspective. “I wanted these paintings to be as patterned and as colorful as I could make them,” Grotjahn has explained, “to allow myself maximum freedom, to be as indulgent as possible” (M. Grotjahn, quoted in B. Powers, “Behind the mask: an interview with Mark Grotjahn”, via http://www.musemagazine.it/behind-the-mask. The process of application is immediate and apparent, making it plainly visible just how time-consuming and painstaking it was to paint these amazing skeins of color. Grotjahn labors for hours over his Face Paintings, finding himself ‘in the zone’ of creation. The result is a luscious surface that leaves no place for the eye to rest.
The sensuous textures and variegated coloring of Untitled (S III Released to France Face 43.14) engenders a sense of intense physicality. It is a kind of acute bodily sensation felt by way of the eyes. As critic Peter Schjeldahl has noted, “[Grotjahn’s] palette-knife patterning, packed and energized in smoldering colors, yields tensions that you can feel in your gut” (P. Schjeldahl, “Take your time: New painting at the Museum of Modern Art”, January 5, 2015, via www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/05/take-time. At close range, Grotjahn’s lines shatter into invitingly tactile strands of multi-colored ribbon, their palette-knife application reminiscent of postwar Tachist painters. Yet, as we step back from the work, the composition races together in an onslaught of explosive rays of energy and dynamic chevrons. These amass into a crooked mask-like face featuring multiple almond-shaped eyes, a striped nose and flared nostrils. It is as if the artist has overloaded his canvas with visual information, daring the viewer to see something human in this highly abstract construct.
The push and pull between abstraction and figuration is typical of Grotjahn’s proclivity for opposing forces in his work. It also points to historical moments when the two genres were not considered mutually exclusive. The Face Paintings can be seen as an extension of the primitivist aesthetic pursued by much early Modernist art. Indeed, Picasso’s 1907 masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon has been variously cited as a specific comparative for the Face Paintings as the rudimentary features in Grotjahn’s painting resemble tribal masks and other ritualistic totems. It is crucial to note, however, that Grotjahn did not look to indigenous artefacts for inspiration. Instead, he reflected on childhood encounters with Picasso’s work via his grandfather’s books and chose to conjure an epoch-defining example of Western painting as the well-spring for new ideas. “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 stated. “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, op. cit.).
“Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation,” Picasso once said. “It is […] a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires” (P. Picasso, quoted in J. Richardson, Through the Eye of Picasso 1928-1934, exh. cat., Beadleston, Inc., New York, 1985, n.p.). But it seems that the opposite is true for Grotjahn for, although the present work gives the impression of being wildly expressive, the artist has in fact kept a certain level of remove between the subject matter and his sense of self. Grotjahn’s practice is conceptually grounded, fueled largely by the devouring and digesting of previous art to formulate a new synthesis. The apparently untamed, shamanic power of Untitled (S III Released to France Face 43.14) must therefore be regarded as not so much an outpouring of the soul, but rather a carefully weighted statement on the process and ritual of painting. The visual references for the Face Paintings series may also be seen to extend beyond the proto-Cubist juncture, invoking the painterly elisions of Willem de Kooning, the retinal effects of Op Art, as well as the Minimalist explorations of color by artists such as Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Josef Albers. “There are echoes of Cubism here and Vlaminck’s Fauvism, of mid-century abstraction, German and neo-Expressionism, rock painting, folk art, and fabric design,” wrote Jerry Saltz in 2011, the year of the present work. “... I think of magic carpets and magnetic fields. I spy networks of Martian canals and landscapes folding over themselves. I glimpse one of painting’s oldest purposes: the uncanny ability to conjure beings and invoke spirits” (J. Saltz, “Making the Spirits Dance”, in New York Magazine, June 5, 2011, via http://nymag.com/arts/art/reviews/mark-grotjahn-2011-6/.
Grotjahn’s earlier famed non-objective paintings also nod to art movements past. His breakthrough came with a series of paintings and drawings composed of stacked perspectival lines in rainbow hues, which lead to his celebrated Butterfly works that flipped the radiating perspective lines onto a vertical axis. These bodies of work pay homage to both the system of pictorial spatial organization developed in the Renaissance and the insistence on the planar nature of painting established by the likes of Malevich and Mondrian in the early 20th century. The Face Paintings also work within predetermined criteria—always featuring stylized eyes and a nose with nostrils, rendered with a specific technique—but their overall construction is entirely the product of the painter’s intuition, thereby introducing a heuristic dimension to his practice. “The Face Paintings allow me to express myself in a way that the Butterflies don’t,” claims Grotjahn. “I have an idea as to what sort of face is going to happen when I do a Face Painting, but I don’t exactly know what color it will take, or how many eyes it’s going to have, whereas the Butterflies are fairly planned out” (M. Grotjahn, quoted in interview with J. Tumlir, “Big Nose Baby and the Moose”, in Flash Art, No. 252, January-February 2007, p. 84).
When looking at Grotjahn’s output as a whole, one gets the feeling that after pursuing a certain kind of system, another antithetical style must come into being, suggesting a constant weighing of ideas akin to Hegel’s dialectics. His aesthetically divergent bodies of work may seem unrelated at first glance, but the synthesizing of various concepts becomes clear when one considers that cartoon-like faces or gestural marks often lie beneath the opaque layers of the geometrical Butterfly paintings, while his more recent painted bronze mask sculptures based on cardboard-box prototypes convert the vitality of the Face Paintings into three dimensions. Each area of his oeuvre demonstrates an abiding fascination with the entire range of painting’s possibilities, from serene non-objective monochromes to volatile mark-making and figural imagery.
By orienting his work around art historical reference points, Grotjahn has also achieved a kind of atemporality in his paintings, where the mixing of past styles and genres can be identified as a kind of hallmark for our contemporary moment. This idea of timelessness evokes another of Grotjahn’s self-confessed touchstones—Paul Gauguin, who, wrote art historian John Richardson, “demonstrated the most disparate types of art [...] could be combined into a synthesis that was of its time yet timeless. An artist could also confound conventional notions of beauty, he demonstrated, by harnessing his demons to the dark gods (not necessarily Tahitian ones) and tapping a new source of divine energy” (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, The Cubist Rebel 1907–1916, New York, 1991, p. 461). The crude face leering out from the tangle of lines in Untitled (S III Released to France Face 43.14) seems to be similarly harnessed to “dark gods” and is complimented by a positively Dionysian style of brushwork. Its capacity to evoke both the natural and supernatural, the conceptual and the emotive, the rudimentary and the virtuosic whilst synthesizing multiple artistic languages puts forward an unbounded vision of painting, staking a claim for the medium’s continued viability and importance to the discourse of our times.