Enthralling the eye and splintering the mind, Mark Grotjahn's Untitled (Standard Lotus No. II, Bird of Paradise, Tiger Mouth Face 44.01), is laden with torrents of impasto, laid down in groves, cascading waves, and rope-like bundles that swell, braid around, and overlap one another. Blossoming with rich, super-saturated color, Untitled evokes the vivid florets of the lotus or bird of paradise. "I like the description of the eyes coming out of the jungle" Grotjahn explains about his "faces." "I sometimes pretend the faces are baboons or monkeys. I can't say I've been influenced by African art particularly or consciously except that I've been influenced by artists who have been influenced. Picasso being the most obvious" (M. Grotjahn in interview with Portland Art, October 2012 at http://www.portlandart.net). Visually reminiscent of the Cubist master, Grotjahn's "face" paintings intermingle abstract and figurative renderings while dismantling and building on the conventions of modern and contemporary painting.
Executed on a sheet of unprimed cardboard mounted on linen, Grotjahn built up his complexly layered surface almost exclusively with a palette knife. Reverting to the basic combinations of line, color and texture, winding rows of oil paint have been carefully laid down, wet-on-wet, forming geometric shapes that develop into representational eyes or grins that are broken down, multiplied, and rearranged, fracturing any fixed perspective. This idiosyncratic investigation in the process and ritual of painting renders a surface so dense and tactile that it immensely slows down as you approach it. Up close, the lines are heavily textured, shattering into stutters of multicolored ribbon in a technique reminiscent of the 1950s palette painters. Yet, pulling back again, the composition races together forming an onslaught of tumbling ellipses and explosive rays of energy-recalling the nominal masklike faces of early Picasso or Henri Matisse. Emphasizing painting as a psychic and bodily process Untitled is fueled in part by the devouring and digesting of previous art to formulate a new synthesis-the work appears to feast on the painting and sculpture of early Modernism, when abstraction and representation where not seen as mutually exclusive.
Colliding abstract and figurative elements, Grotjahn's paintings are conceptually grounded. The curator Douglas Fogle once aptly divvied up the painter's oeuvre into three basic categories: "the 'mimetic' sign paintings and drawings, the 'abstract' perspective and butterfly works, and the turgidly expressive faces, masks, and flowers that occupy the realm of 'figureative'" (D. Fogle, quoted in B. Schwabsky, Mark Grotjahn, Aspen Museum of Art, exh. cat., 2012, p. 59). Yet, in truth all of these works are simultaneously figurative and abstract, mimetic and expressive, systematic and idiosyncratic. Grotjahn manifests a certain playfulness in his work that belies an antipathy to systems. By continuously combining these seemingly incompatible poles Grotjahn stakes a claim for the continued vitality of abstraction and the medium of painting.