"When I went onto the ‘Faces’ I used different marks that are, I think, traditionally seen as expressive. The perspectives were very meditative and this is a different kind of emotion. There was a certain kind of peace and a certain kind of beauty that I was going for. I don’t think they are less expressive; it is just that the other ones, the ‘Faces,’ are viewed as more expressive." (M. Grotjahn, quoted in interview with M. Gnyp, “Mark Grotjahn,” Zoo Magazine, no. 38, January 2013, http://www.martagnyp.com/interviews/markgrotjahn)
Mark Grotjahn’s Untitled (Butterfly Face) is a seamless synthesis of the artist’s two signature motifs, the butterfly and the face. Painted in 2003, the canvas carefully blends the outburst that is the “butterfly” with Picasso-esque eyes that form an abstracted face. The vibrant layer upon layer of pigment–its depth visible when examining the edges of the painting–and trademark form of radiating lines are consistent with the rest of the artist’s distinct oeuvre. High-velocity, diagonal lines veer off from the slightly asymmetrical axis that divides the composition. These rays slice through the oleaginous layers of bright paint, as though racing to reach the edge. Of the incorporation of eyes in his work, Grotjahn states, “I wanted to use the language of Picasso and do something with it...use the art school ‘eyes’ fixation and make good paintings” (M. Grotjahn, quoted by R. Storr, “LA Push-Pull/Po-Mo-Stop-Go," Mark Grotjahn, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2009, p. 7).
A native to Los Angeles, Grotjahn was immersed in the work of L.A. conceptual artists as he developed his career in southern California. However, his work recalls numerous art histories, ranging from Renaissance perspectival techniques to geometries, and from the utopian thought of Russian Constructivism to the reductive strategies of Minimalism and the hallucinatory effects of Op Art. As Robert Storr states, "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, ibid., p. 6). In the mid-1990s, Grotjahn established himself with his Sign Replacement Project, where the artist created reproductions of hand-written shop signs and traded them for the originals, exhibiting those as his own–a project rooted in his conceptual art exposure and an attempt at to ‘make it vivid.’ Grotjahn recalls, “At the time I had just moved to L.A. and I had been doing conceptual performance work in the Bay Area. 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 a while. 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).
In 1998, Grotjahn’s artistic praxis shifted significantly, as he exhibited his replacement signs alongside new works featuring dual and multiple vanishing points, drawing from the perspectival practices of the Renaissance painters. These first experimentations with geometries and directional lines followed a horizontal orientation. However, with a simple axial tilt of ninety degrees, Grotjahn transformed his original stacked landscapes into his distinctive starburst-like vectors that radiate from the center of the canvas. With this mere rotation, Grotjahn discovered a graphic framework that is now recognized as his signature form, serving as the foundation for both his butterflies and his faces. As M. N. Holte states, "The butterfly has become to Mark Grotjahn what the target is to Kenneth Noland, the zip was to Barnett Newman, and the color white is to Robert Ryman..." (M. N. Holte, "Mark Grotjahn," Artforum, November 2005, p. 259). However, despite the artist’s departure from reproducing signs, Grotjahn’s past endeavors are visible in his characteristic style–emphasizing the evidence of the artist’s touch, and the refusal of accepting the precise, hard-edged lines of formal abstraction.
To digest his paintings, deceptively simple in form, is a geological experience–one must examine the edges of all four sides to discover the hidden artifacts of past layers of paint, or scan the strata of its surface and search gaps and crevices for information of the painting’s colorful past and present. The depth of the black paint in Untitled (Butterfly Face) competes for recognition amongst the purposeful streaks of yellows, reds, and greens. Grotjahn’s combination of palette knife and brush build up a dynamic surface slathered with dark and vibrant colors that spark and flare out of the center. These pyrotechnics can be felt both up close and from a distance, enacting the same back-and-forth dynamism across the surface of the painting within the viewer’s experience.