THE HISTORY OF NOW: THE COLLECTION OF DAVID TEIGER SOLD TO BENEFIT TEIGER FOUNDATION FOR THE SUPPORT OF CONTEMPORARY ART
Grotjahn’s Face paintings developed organically out of the artist’s well-known formalist Butterfly paintings, in which planes of contrasting hues extend from varying vanishing points. However, in contrast to the iconic Butterfly paintings, Grotjahn’s Face paintings, such as the present, provide a more direct, unmediated reflection of the artist’s subjectivity, given their highly expressive nature and visceral materiality. As the artist remarked: “The Face paintings allow me to express myself in a way that the Butterflies don’t, I have an idea as to what sort of face is going to happen when I do a Face Painting, but I don’t exactly know what color it will take, or how many eyes it’s going to have, whereas the Butterflies are fairly planned out...” (Mark Grotjahn in conversation with Jan Tumlir, ‘Big Nose Baby and the Moose’, Flash Art, No. 252, January-February 2007, online resource).
In Untitled (Black over Red Orange “Mean as a Snake” Face 842), a totemic, disfigured face takes central stage, abstractly composed of emboldened eyes hovering above one other, two pairs of elongated flaring nostrils converging below and a downward slanting mouth, left slightly open to expose a set of jagged teeth. In addition, these anthropomorphic features hover within an undefinable space, geometrically dissected by a multiplex of thickly painted lines. Thus, in the present work, Grotjahn’s skillful synthesis of abstraction and figuration produces a captivating visual effect whereby “the line between form and likeliness is indistinguishable.”(Barry Schwabsky, Mark Grotjahn, Aspen, 2012, p. 62) In other words, both the frontal visage and the paint itself become active subjects in Grotjahn’s tactile composition.
Grotjahn’s evocation of the mask also echoes the early modernist affinity for traditional African aesthetics, evident in the mask-like forms used by Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi. Although Grotjahn’s work adheres to the modernist lineage in its adept combination of abstraction and portraiture, the painting evolves the historically loaded iconography by imbuing the mask with a life of its own; in Untitled, the brightly painted, almond-shaped eyes draw the viewer’s attention by enacting its own gaze, thereby reciprocating the gaze of the viewer. By creating a painted subject that “stares back,” Grotjahn supplements the viewer’s experience with a sense of urgency. (Andrea K. Scott, ”Face Value”, The New Yorker, June 6, 2011) As art critic, Barry Schwabsky notes, there is something about the painting that makes it want to be seen. This is due to the mask’s indication of elusive facial expressions such as a subtle wink or suggestive grin. Schwabsky also states that "there is something else that wants to remain hidden, obscure.” (Ibid., p.63). Therefore, Untitled’s uniqueness resides in its paradoxical embodiment of visibility and opacity.
Hypnotic, raw and audacious, the present work leaves the viewer in a state of ethereal sensuality. The painting’s heavily labored surface, the product of Grotjahn’s agonizing exercise, makes Untitled (Black over Red Orange “Mean as a Snake” Face 842) an ode to process and artistic determination. Moreover, by coaxing the physiognomic imagery of traditional African imagery, the multi-layered perspectives of cubism, the gestural dynamism of Abstract Expressionism and the optical effects of Minimal art, the work stands intelligently positioned between a plethora of interrelated art historical references. The present work’s true brilliance, however, lies in its dissolution of the figure-ground distinction. As Mark Prince observes: “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.” (Mark Prince, ‘The Divided Self’, in: Exh. Cat., Freiburg, Kunstverein Freiburg, Mark Grotjahn: Circus Circus, 2014, p. 27) Viewed in this light, the poignant beauty of Grotjahn’s Untitled (Black over Red Orange “Mean as a Snake” Face 842) originates in its articulation of painting’s ability to conjure the ambiguities of human existence.
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