Grotjahn's Face paintings operate within the tension between the ostensibly incongruous poles of abstraction and figuration, complicating the formal correlation between the faces and the pictures’ purely geometric organizations of radial bands of color. Hovering close to illusionism yet entirely evading mimesis, the present work harbors a shamanistic graphic unconscious that lends abstraction a vigorously beating human pulse. Burrowing out from the vicious primal slashes of Grotjahn’s brush are vague suggestions of an anthropomorphic visage hidden amongst the thicket of impasto: two elongated almond-shaped eyes peer from behind the kinetic scrawl, furrowed above the bridge of a partially rendered nose. As bundles of cascading paint slash in all-over yet carefully choreographed directions, the representational fragments that emerge from pure abstraction render the present work a thrilling treatise on the development of modernist painting. Like de Kooning’s propulsive women or Basquiat’s warrior kings, Grotjahn’s masked face splinters across the canvas, carving room for complex figural relationships amidst a sea of thrashing pigment. Mesmerizing and hypnotic, the present work is a tributary to Grotjahn’s extreme acuity to spatial perspective—the face concurrently surges and recedes through the picture plane, while the high-velocity lines sculpt a vectored relief akin to the most avant-garde Futurist paintings. A flurry of verdant green, cobalt, grey, and yellow hues weave through each other and course across various paths, bursting with chaos while synthesizing an incredible clarity and composure.
Signing the painting along the top bar is an archetypal autographic tendency of Grotjahn’s, whose most complex paintings bear prominent maker’s marks, a cunning painterly gesture in the tradition of Robert Ryman. However, in the present work, Grotjahn inverts his signature in the mirror image, a compelling and distinctive conceptual endeavor that broadcasts the anthropomorphism of this painting—we are reminded of its corporeal relation to ourselves in the jarring re-orientation of language, which would only prove legible if presented in a reflective surface. As praised by Roberta Smith, Grotjahn’s Face paintings, “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… Here rawness rather than finish prevails. The radiating, ricocheting lines never submit; the flaring planes never emerge. The faces hold their own, if just barely, to affirm in staunchly contemporary terms the human presence behind all art.” (Roberta Smith, ‘Art in Review,’ The New York Times, May 12, 2011) Untitled (Grey White and Yellow Lined Over Blue Green Face 809) possesses an unnervingly seductive inner force, an energy that sucks the viewer into its kaleidoscopic hold and refuses to let go.
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