A hypnotic explosion of line, texture and color, Untitled (Yellow White Face Cut Out Eyes Green iris 41.14) is a mesmerizing work from Mark Grotjahn’s celebrated series of Face Paintings. As one of the most significant cycle of works within the artist’s oeuvre, the Face Paintings vividly exemplify Grotjahn’s carefully-calibrated pictorial surfaces and unique brand of optical pyrotechnics. Observing the present work, the viewer is subsumed by a vortex of disorientating radial lines, a woven mesh of painterly threads interspersed with swirling ellipses and spirographs. Gradually, visual chaos begins to yield recognizable forms: lines and angles coalesce to suggest an elemental bone structure; a pair of eyes stares back at us from the depths of the Grotjahn’s tangled jungle. With its primal rhythm and reductive anatomy, the work is almost sculptural in its execution, combining a raw, visceral energy with painstakingly crafted textures and patterns. Totemic and mask-like, Grotjahn’s face is the product of an intense dialogue between the abstract and the figurative, the rudimentary and the virtuosic. Both alien and familiar, its human features fight for recognition against a dense, clamouring mass of camouflage. As Roberta Smith has written, “[t]he 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” (R. Smith, “Mark Grotjahn: Nine Faces,” in New York Times, May 12, 2011, www.nytimes.com, [accessed April 8 2015]).
Working on sheets of primed cardboard mounted on linen, Grotjahn builds up his complex layered surface by using a palette knife to apply his paint. Snaking cascades and groves of oil paint are carefully laid down, wet-on-wet, forming geometric shapes that are broken down, multiplied, and rearranged, fracturing any fixed perspective. As Robert Storr describes, “[colors] traverse, tailgate, and smear into each other, resulting in a constant chromatic cackle as complementary and secondary contrasts spark and flare like chain reaction fireworks” (R. Storr, “LA Push-Pull/Po-Mo-Stop-Go”, in Mark Grotjahn, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, London, 2009, p. 7). This idiosyncratic investigation into the process and ritual of painting renders a rich, tactile surface that dissolves upon approach. At close range, Grotjahn’s lines shatter into shard-like strands of multicolored ribbon in a manner reminiscent of the 1950s palette painters. Yet, as we step back from the work, the composition races together in an onslaught of tumbling spirals and explosive rays of energy, recalling the mask-like faces of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Emphasizing painting as a psychic and bodily process, Grotjahn’s work is fueled in part by the devouring and digesting of previous art, feasting on the primitivistic aesthetic of early Modernism whilst simultaneously invoking the retinal effects of Op Art and the trance-like explorations of color espoused by Minimalism. Synthesizing multiple artistic languages, the Face Paintings return Grotjahn’s practice to a kind of ground zero, allowing him to explore new possibilities both for painting and for the time-honoured tradition of anatomical representation.
Grotjahn’s Face Paintings extend the language of his renowned Butterfly Paintings which, initiated in the early 2000s, deployed colored segments and skewed perspectival lines to resemble the wings of a butterfly. The graphic, almost diagrammatic execution of these works is still tangible in the Face Paintings, in which Grotjahn’s dense topography of intersecting lines unhinges the viewer’s perception of space and depth. Indeed, from its earliest stages, Grotjahn’s practice has engaged the principles of draughtsmanship: from his careful replicas of shop signs in the initial stages of his career, to his abstract experiments with multiple vanishing points in the late 1990s. In the Face Paintings, however, this tendency merges with a new sense of painterly abandon, introducing an expressive, heuristic dimension to his practice. “The Face Paintings allow me to express myself in a way that the Butterflies don’t,” claims Grotjahn. “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” (M. Grotjahn, quoted in interview with J. Tumlir, “Big Nose Baby and the Moose”, in Flash Art, No. 252, January-February 2007, http://www.flashartonline.com [accessed April 8 2015]). Through submission to chance in this way, Grotjahn creates psychedelic, almost supernatural painterly terrains whose inscrutable webs of pattern and texture invite myriad associations. “I think of magic carpets and magnetic fields”, writes Jerry Saltz; “I spy networks of Martian canals and landscapes folding over themselves. I glimpse one of painting’s oldest purposes: the uncanny ability to conjure beings and invoke spirits” (J. Saltz, “Making the Spirits Dance,” in New York Magazine, June 5, 2011, www.nymag.com [accessed April 8 2015]).