Los Angeles

Mark Grotjahn

The “butterfly” has become to Mark Grotjahn what the target is to Kenneth Noland, the zip was to Barnett Newman, and the color white is to Robert Ryman. Of course Grotjahn is goofing on these and other classic motifs, but more important, he is using the immediately recognizable trademark as a means to interrogate the slippery nature of the artistic signature. Grotjahn’s abstracted geometric figure is suitably elusive. In fact, the more familiar it becomes, the more he refines its ability to surprise and, perhaps paradoxically, takes it further away from actual butterflyness.

Grotjahn started making paintings with/of multiple, independent perspectival vanishing points in 1998, initially stacking three horizons in a single canvas before moving on to the vertical, not-quite-symmetrical wings of today’s models in 2001. In these, he investigates the possibilities afforded by the monochromatic or almost monochromatic, experimenting with emerald green, deep purple, yellow-cream, and orange. And along the way, he has begun sporadically adding his name and/or the date to the painting. The five Untitled oil-on-linen butterfly paintings (all works 2005) shown here reside in a narrow chromatic range that the artist calls “white” on four occasions and “yellow white” on the other. They are all a rather sober color reminiscent of creamy leek soup.

The phrase BIG NOSE BABY MOOSE crawls sideways along the right edge of two of these paintings. I’m clueless as to its meaning, but clearly Grotjahn is using it as a surrogate signature and compositional motif, in the way he used his actual signature in the past. (He performed a different, more literal, series of “sign exchanges” early in his career, replacing vernacular shop signs with his own hand-painted simulacra.) The words BIG NOSE BABY MOOSE first surfaced in his work in 2000 as part of the parenthetical title of an outlandish painting, a floral face that might or might not be a self-portrait. Language plays a significant role on and off the artist’s canvases, particularly in his use of ambiguity (saying “butterfly” and meaning “abstraction,” or “white” and meaning “not exactly white,” or “Big Nose Baby Moose” and meaning anything, or nothing, whatsoever). Like Ryman, Grotjahn uses his signature as verbal signifier and as formal device, leaving us to determine where one ends and the other begins.

Upon close inspection, it becomes evident that Grotjahn’s letters are voids excised from a dense layer of paint that opens onto an underlying color such as red or blue. The lower color plays tricks with the upper; blue, for example, makes the leek-soup color look warmer than it is; red does the opposite. It’s Color Theory 101, but shows why the superficial sameness of the five new paintings is significant; Grotjahn is interested in proximity, in the almost-but-not-quite. Two paintings called Untitled (White Butterfly) are virtually identical—one is three inches taller than the other—with blue under-painting peeking out along the edges and at the two vanishing points. Implied perspective thus becomes a MacGuffin of sorts, as Grotjahn achieves a low-key drama of tonal modulation via the shallow relief of his barely there radiant lines.

A sixth painting, Untitled (Blue Face Grotjahn), deviates from the butterfly formula by introducing a flurry of color, glaring eyeballs, and a triangulated network of brushstrokes. It displays its difference blatantly, as if to emphasize how far an artist may deviate from his or her signature (the appearance of his name notwithstanding) while remaining in full possession of it.

Michael Ned Holte