Acquired from the above by David Teiger in 2004
Mark Grotjahn’s oeuvre grew out of conceptual sign making. Early in his career, he painstakingly reproduced quirky graphics and phrases from local storefronts. In turn, he would trade these handmade copies with the shop owners in exchange for the original signage, which Grotjahn then exhibited as his own. In 1998, Grotjahn displayed works from this Sign Replacement Project alongside a set of paintings that resemble Leon Battista Alberti's Renaissance treatise on one-point perspective. Grotjahn recalls: “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” (Arcy Douglass in conversation with Mark Grotjahn, Portland Art, 6 October 2010, online). In contrast to Alberti's diagrammatical experimentation, Grotjahn tilted the axis ninety degrees, severing any ties to landscape painting that a horizontal orientation may have suggested. With the vertical body anchoring the centre of the composition and the vectors radiating like starbursts, Grotjahn discovered a graphic framework that would become his most sustained visual investigation.
Here, two off-kilter vanishing points mark the centre of the butterfly’s ‘abdomen’, while flying rays dart outward, fluttering across the diagonal trajectories of slightly skewed ‘wings’ – their tremoring vectors conjure the sensation of being captured mid-flight. Summoning natural world phenomena, while investigating the fundamental tenets of abstraction, the artist achieves a result that is as aesthetically seductive as it is rigorously analytical. Operating within this tension between the ostensibly incongruous poles of abstraction and figuration, the work complicates the formal correlation between the winged insects and the picture’s purely geometric organisation of shapes. The refined precision and forthright simplicity of the present work's symmetry and monochrome palette is punctuated by reminders of artistic process.
Untitled (Yellow Butterfly Orange Mark Grotjahn 2004) is particularly striking, as the gradations of yellow are highlighted by the orange paint peeking out at the edges of the central stripes, which is moreover emphasised by his provocatively bold signature. As discussed by Johanna Burton: "Language plays a significant role on and off the artist's canvases, particularly in his use of ambiguity (saying 'butterfly' and meaning 'abstraction'…). Like Ryman, Grotjahn uses his signature as verbal signifier and as formal device, leaving us to determine where one ends and the other begins" (Johanna Burton, 'Mark Grotjahn: Anton Kern', ArtForum, December 2003, online). Here Grotjahn creates mesmerising depth and brilliant, luxurious glamour through the clarion sunshine of his palette.
Untitled (Yellow Butterfly Orange Mark Grotjahn 2004) thus entrances the viewer through an expanding spatial illusion of subtle monochromatic gradations, reflecting the intense fascination with the interplay between illusionistic space and graphic representation that is at the heart of Grotjahn’s practice. Building on his earlier sign project, Grotjahn employed the butterfly motif as a means to further investigate those perspectival techniques with dual and multiple vanishing points, even as he engages with a broad spectrum of non-objective art, from Constructivism and Futurism through to Minimalism and Op-art. In the present work, Grotjahn creates a parallel pictorial universe in which geometric abstraction and traditional Western representational painting collide. The monochrome radial bands possess a seductive inner force, an energy that draws the viewer into its kaleidoscopic hold and refuses to let go. This painting encapsulates the full spectrum of Grotjahn’s meticulous acuity for spatial relationships and his ardent exploration into colour, form, and scale.
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