Long lines to see at Mark Grotjahn’s Nine Faces at Anton Kern Gallery. They are lines but they aren’t “lined.” Rather than ruling an edge or tracing an arc, Mark Grotjahn strings along atomic, individual kisses from the brush. The punctual daub, the incipient line. Each line, like a bow or branch mingles with others until forming a thicket. Thickets group into a bramble.
The line widths, parallel tendencies, and tubular volume could derive from the corrugated cardboard beneath them. But what about the emergent faces, from which Grotjahn supposedly derives his paintings? Perhaps the process is to reconcile the ribbed plane of the cardboard ground with the transverse arcs of the face. Ten-line highway meets frog. Grotjahn’s lines are fortified with overlapping segments of impasto paint. Where the brush pulled away from the surface, the paint rises in low relief with tantalizing, glistening rivulets, each delicious like an oiled Brazilian rockclimber blowing kisses from the granite cliff he climbs. Over and over again, from edge to edge.
“The radiating, ricocheting lines never submit; the flaring planes never emerge,” writes Roberta Smith on Mark Grotjahn’s Nine Faces. Irresistible force meets immovable object. “The faces hold their own, if just barely, to affirm in staunchly contemporary terms the human presence behind all art.”
Like narrating a nature documentary, she’s poetically, rightfully comparing to interspecies struggle – overwhelming predators versus resistant prey – the formal trials underway in Mark Grotjahn’s larger-than-life-sized, oil on cardboard on linen paintings.
It doesn’t end with self-indicating dots and dashes, but it also doesn’t continue toward connecting the dots and dashes into conclusive images. Microscopically parsing his fundamental markmaking, she plants Grotjahn in the Abstraction Jungle, but gazing, perhaps condescendingly, at Figuration City.
She’s also describing Mark Grotjahn’s straddling stance between modernism and the art of today. He is beyond subjective markmaking but short of the framework unto objective imagery – or back from it.
-The perplexing state that he is in; her puzzling writing on the wall. First, how can one be staunch while still being contemporary? “Staunch” is the folded forearms of modernism, the tight lips of rigid history. And doesn’t this look like painting you might have found 60 years ago hanging in carpeted galleries on the Upper East Side?
But if it is staunchly contemporary, than what is it staunch against? “Staunchly” invokes refusal, steadfastness, Ironclad. What does the Contemporary refuse? Maybe the facelessness of abstract expressionism, where a lot of individualism went into the work, but a lot of monolithic masks were the closest we got to faces? Maybe the adventitiously illustrative digressions of the academic masters before that? Then, how would the Contemporary feel about surrealist and AbEx face-friendlies like Miró, or facebreakers like Picasso?
Grotjahn turns his back on the signifying nothing of “pure” abstraction and the gratuitous striptease of imagery and its overpopulation. He’s back in the jungle, but he remembers the city.