New York

Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Distinguished Multiple V’s Late Monet Face 41.34), 2010, oil on cardboard mounted on linen, 119 3/8 x 84 3/8".

Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Distinguished Multiple V’s Late Monet Face 41.34), 2010, oil on cardboard mounted on linen, 119 3/8 x 84 3/8".

Mark Grotjahn

Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Distinguished Multiple V’s Late Monet Face 41.34), 2010, oil on cardboard mounted on linen, 119 3/8 x 84 3/8".

Anyone walking into Anton Kern Gallery and expecting to see a suite of Mark Grotjahn’s ubiquitous Butterfly paintings would have been taken aback. Myself included. For instead of the those well-known abstractions, in which monochromatic spokes in various hues radiate from a vertical midline, there were riotous paint fields manipulated by a palette knife, coalescing into eyes and entire heads. Yet the panels in Grotjahn’s “Nine Faces” follow from his preceding efforts, both in structure and, perhaps, in their development via an additive process, meaning that although the show represents a difference, it is not one for which we should have been wholly unprepared. Indeed, the bilateral symmetry of the butterflies emerges from the human face, the presence of which actually subtends the penultimate abstract compositions (Grotjahn first applies figurative layers, which he then insistently covers over). As Carroll Dunham puts it in a snappy and gamely candid essay drafted for the catalogue: “It is probably as misguided to see his earlier work in purely abstract terms as it is to see his recent work only through the filter of its putative subject. It’s a beautiful thing when artists move in surprising directions that are later deemed to have been inevitable.”

The large-scale paintings here evidence faces in their densely textured surfaces. Untitled (Geo Abstract Reveal Face 41.61), 2011, and Untitled (Distinguished Multiple V’s Late Monet Face 41.34), 2010, harbor almond-shaped eyes; Untitled (Vertical Almond Face 41.04), 2010, and Untitled (Yellow Brown and Pink Big Nose Face 41.03), 2010, foreground nostrils; and Untitled (S 1 Full Frontal Face 41.25), 2009–10, gives the game away with a totemic visage seen straight on. Dunham is right to point to the unsuitability of academic and increasingly unproductive divisions between abstraction and figuration. More often than not, as Grotjahn’s paintings make clear, the point is simply for an image—iconic, non-objective, or something in between—to become itself; hence the current fetish for process, the visual guarantee that the artist sufficiently labored a material into being. In these encrusted canvases, paint occupies as central a motif as the nominal faces: It produces form while reinforcing itself through raw, plain tactility. Up close, paint curlicues in minute arcs, casting tiny shadows, while the long strokes reveal a rainbow of adjacent color; from afar, the works’ global physicality as made things is pronounced. To focus on the putative subject of the faces, though, is not to deny this physicality. On the contrary, the weight of the geometric shapes is significant, a literal gravity of size and mass.

As for the faces, they forcefully invoke masks—a citation with its own implications. But these canvases’ affinity with early modernism’s primitivism, the morphological appropriation of the African tribal object that runs from Matisse and Picasso to Brancusi and beyond, is just that, an affinity. (Untitled [Side Swiped and Carved Face 41.32]), 2009–10, nonetheless shows this to be a definitive reference, in its tweaked and elliptical items, which, taken together, compose a stylized face.) Grotjahn’s interest in this subject has less to do with formal qualities—or what it meant ritualistically in its primary context—than with its role historically as a source of inspiration. It is as though the artist has gone back through the work of his forebears to recover the generative potential of an object, any object, and to wrest it from the lightness of artifice and mere superficial interest. Grotjahn’s paintings are thus remarkable because they are willing to present painting as a medium in which things might be conjured, made from pigment. His romance is less with the primal than with painting itself, and the work that it can still do.

Suzanne Hudson