For over two decades, Mark Grotjahn has explored the structures of geometric formalism and serial repetition to become one of the leading abstract painters working today. His deceptively simple trademark form consists of radiating lines converging on one or more vanishing points, which he identifies as 'butterflies.' Untitled (Red Butterfly II Yellow MARK GROTJAHN P-08 752) is one of Grotjahn's more recent variants in this on going and astonishingly varied body of work. For this painting, Grotjahn has reduced his palette drastically and dispensed with alternating color bands, but the result is far from puritanical or austere as the fractured geometry and handmade aesthetic make for a vibrating and visually active picture plane. Indeed, the intensely red, lushly textural surface hits the viewer with an almost bodily force. The artist has applied a thin base layer of sunny yellow with a top-coat of red so thick that his brush has corrugated the pigment into bas-relief.
In other paintings from this series, Grotjahn reversed the colorway, using yellow as the top-coat in place of red. In both cases, the under-layer is allowed to show around the edges of the canvas and through the smeared upper strata. These two 'hot' tones advance the furthest in the color spectrum and they play off each other with such vibrancy here that the competing colors simultaneously project forwards, while a third orange-red tone appears where the impasto thins out. The composition is divided equally by a central axis upon which diagonal lines race outwards from two slightly off-kilter vanishing points. The expansive rays etched into the oleaginous paint create a mesmerizing optical illusion as they appear to both approach and recede at high-speed momentum. But these dynamic lines are stopped in their tracks by the longitudinal bands that enclose the center and edges of the canvas, bringing it back to the level ground of modernist flatness in a manner reminiscent of Barnett Newman's 'zips.' The skewed angles and bold colors of Grotjahn's Butterfly paintings knowingly allude to geometric abstraction's numerous art histories, including the utopian vision of Russian Constructivism, the reductive strategies of minimalism and the hallucinatory images of Op Art. As Robert Storr has aptly put it: "Grotjahn is not an artist obsessed with positing a wholly unprecedented 'concept' of art, but rather is concerned with teasing nuanced experience out of existing concepts or constructs according to the opportunities presented by a specific, well-calculated conceit. Nor is he really preoccupied with Ezra Pound's mandate to 'make it new;' rather he wants to make it vivid, and applies all of his impressive skill to doing just that" (R. Storr, "LA Push-Pull/Po-Mo-Stop-Go," Mark Grotjahn, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2009, p. 6).
Grotjahn's practice is rooted in conceptual art and his paintings and drawings pursue a number of individual and seemingly contradictory strands, including the Butterfly works, as well as expressively painted faces, masks and flowers, all of which touch on historical referents. Grotjahn's career began in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, where he made a name for himself with the Sign Replacement Project that involved him making faithful copies of hand-written shop signs, trading them in for the originals, and exhibiting them as his own. In 1998 he exhibited a shift in his practice when he displayed these exchanged sign works next to a set of paintings stimulated by the perspectival inventions of the Renaissance, particularly dual and multiple vanishing points. "At the time I had just moved to L.A. and I had been doing conceptual performance work in the Bay Area, Grotjahn explains. "I opened a gallery with my friend Brent Peterson and started showing and working with other artists. That took care of a lot of my conceptual needs as well as feeling connected to a larger community. And I started to think about why I got into art in the first place. I was always interested in line and color. I wanted to find a motif that I could experiment with for awhile. I did a group of drawings over a period of six to twelve months. The drawing that I chose was one that resembled the three-tier perspective, and that is what I went with" (M. Grotjahn quoted in A. Douglass, "Interview with Mark Grotjahn," 6 October 2010, at http://www.portlandart.net/archives/2010/10/interview_with_11.html). Intrigued by this idea but unhappy with the landscape connection suggested by the horizontal orientation, Grotjahn soon tilted the axis ninety degrees. With the vertical body anchoring the center of the composition and the vectors radiating like starbursts, Grotjahn discovered a graphic framework that has become his most sustained visual investigation, generating endless permutations for the artist.
Grotjahn's early interest in handmade signs is evidenced in the present work through a celebration of the artistic trace, which refuses the precise, hard-edged line often associated with formal abstraction. It can also be seen in the artist's signature, which he makes a peculiar feature in most of his paintings. Signing the front of a work is rare for most abstract artists and an unusual practice in contemporary art in general, yet Grotjahn has prominently placed his name and the date of production on this Butterfly work. No afterthought or closing gesture, Grotjahn's signature is a premeditated act that was built into the painting as it evolved. Instead of a handwritten inscription, this is a typographically designed stencil that exposes the bright yellow under-layer of paint and boldly disrupts the illusionist pictorial space. The artist's signature, and therefore his identity, is bound up in the painting as a formal device, creating a small sign that indicates Grotjahn's awareness of the relationship between the author, the work and the wider system of artwork as fetish object. For Grotjahn, the whole work is his signature, and the Butterfly paintings represent his signature style.