ARTISTS FOR MOCA: AN AUCTION TO BENEFIT THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, LOS ANGELES
Possessing the same roughly convergent one-point perspective as the artist’s Butterfly paintings, yet devouring the picture plane in its denser, braver, and more wildly variegated surface, Grotjahn’s Face paintings are a monument to the artist’s mesmerizing bravado and graphic unruliness. In the sumptuously ridged skeins of oil paint and brash all-over expressionism, Grotjahn’s Untitled (Into and Behind the Green Eyes of the Tiger Monkey Face 43.18) from 2011 emphasizes the heroic gestural application of paint, an audacious achievement that places the artist in the same league as historic antecedents such as Pablo Picasso and Willem de Kooning. Rife with riveting vertiginous motion that ricochets across its surface, Untitled (Into and Behind the Green Eyes of the Tiger Monkey Face 43.18) challenges the strict formal organization of modernist painting with spectacular flourish, injecting a distinct humanity into the archetypal dialectic between abstraction and figuration. Mark Prince wrote, “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.” (Mark Prince, "The Divided Self," in Exh. Cat., Kunstverein Freiburg, Mark Grotjahn: Circus Circus, 2014, p. 27) Here we discover the self-expression of abstraction in the human guise that courses through the arterial network of voluminous pigment.
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. Curator Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson noted the dramatic immediacy and retinal thrill of this series: “In the face paintings Grotjahn’s intentions are more frontal. The application of paint appears haphazard, quick, less thoughtful. Grotjahn’s disruption in these works is the result of his carving into their cardboard structure. Physicality here includes his scrapes, cuts, peels, or inlays of these elements… Ultimately, these acts of destruction come out of love—wanting to know something so intensely that it must in fact be destroyed to be known.” (Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, "Disruption" in Exh. Cat., Aspen, Aspen Art Museum, Mark Grotjahn, 2012, p. 56) Burrowing from the vicious primal slashes of Grotjahn’s brush are vague suggestions of an anthropomorphic visage hidden amongst the thicket of impasto. Out of the painting’s prismatic framework emerge primary facial features such as eyes, nose, and mouth, looming from beneath the emphatic streams of paint. Hovering close to illusionism yet entirely evading mimesis, the present work harbors a shamanistic graphic unconscious that lends abstraction a vigorously beating human pulse.
Echoing the gestural vigor of Abstract Expressionist action painting fused with the complex perspectival logic of Cubism, the present work puts forth a torrential energy exemplary of Grotjahn’s most compelling paintings. The painting revels in its three-dimensionality, encouraging our eyes to navigate the topography of its densely applied crosshatched lines—its pure abstraction at once signals the flatness of the two-dimensional picture plane, while also vibrantly creating the impression of dynamic perspectival depth in the thrashing thicket and clandestine face. Grotjahn’s painting evades a fixed image, instead creating a pictorial realm where physiognomy merges vigorously with the material application of paint and defiantly refusing any standstill. 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)
While Untitled (Into and Behind the Green Eyes of the Tiger Monkey Face 43.18) commands a singular presence in the zealous motion of its forthright surface, the ribbons of color here retain an exceptionally lyrical quality, curving through the contours of paint in synchronized beauty. 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 pigment. Mesmerizing and hypnotic, the present work is a paragon of 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 kaleidoscopic colors weave through each other and course across various paths, bursting with chaos while synthesizing an incredible clarity and composure. Fiery reds and verdant greens intersect with deep blues and cool whites, enveloping the picture plane in an exhilarating spectrum of chromatic brilliance.
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