© Mark Grotjahn. Courtesy Gagosian

Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Circus No. 18 Face 44.36) (2015)

Written by Jenny Harris, PhD Candidate Department of Art History, 2027

The pulsating lines of paint that traverse the surface of Untitled (Circus No. 18 Face 44.36) suggest in material terms the spectacular dynamism of a circus. The work is comprised of a thickly encrusted build up of several layers of oil paint that Grotjahn applied to a piece of cardboard, which he later mounted on linen. As a result, the painting seems to project outward and beyond its rectangular frame rather than sinking into its material support. Grotjahn made each of its overlaying and sometimes circuitous linear marks with the help of a palette knife, a flat metal tool that allowed him to drag compressed pigment across its surface in stuttering smears of bright, overlapping colors. The leftovers of such traces can be seen along the painting’s edges, which feature irregular globs of amalgamated pigment.

As the painting’s additional subtitle suggests, Grotjahn’s Circus series grew out of his earlier Face paintings, begun in 2003. In keeping with the earlier works, the Circus paintings often begin with a loosely delineated face—here suggested by an underlying, orange U-shaped form of a mouth, the almond-shaped outlines of slanted eyes, and, at center, the swirling rings of two nostrils. Over the course of several months of painting, this image grew increasingly obscured through the multiplicity of marks—the dense material buildup of paint and shapes. Touching on a concern that was central to the work of so many twentieth century, the painting asks the beholder to move between the opposing poles of figuration and abstraction: on the one hand, the suggestion of a face and, on the other, its dissolution into the gestural flurry of material traces of its making and unmaking. At the same time, it exemplifies Grotjahn’s combined interests in the conceptual underpinnings of painting, on the one hand, and the crafting or making of an object, on the other.

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Central to Grotjahn’s exploration of the relationship between the physical and conceptual aspects of painting is his sensitivity to the role of the art market in the construction of meaning around his works. The seeds of these interests were planted in the mid-1990s while he was living in Los Angeles and working not just as an artist, but also operating his own commercial art gallery. His works in these years such as Sign Exchange (1993-1998, see bio for more info), explored both handmade processes of drawing and painting, the potential seriality of such processes, and non-traditional contexts of display (like the windows of community businesses). By highlighting these aspects of production and circulation, Grotjahn foregrounded the degree to which their meaning rests not simply on their materiality, but also on the systems in which they are seen, interpreted, and exchanged. In this way, he forces attention to their dual status as both artwork and commodity.

These concerns informed a work Grotjahn produced in 2006 as part of a commission from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. In response to the invitation to make something for the school’s private art collection, Grotjahn took the $10,000 he received in commission money and spent it gambling at a Los Angeles casino over the course of five days. The resulting set of five drawings document such activities in the work’s extended title, Untitled (Poker Set Chicago, $10,000 Seed Money, 5 Days $40-80 Texas Hold’Em, Commerce Casino Los Angeles, and Total Loss $4,602) and in its imagery: made with colored pencil on paper, each drawing notes in text the date and time of each of his visits as well as the total dollar amount of his losses and earnings. While the works’ somewhat irregular lines and smudge marks signal the artist’s own hand, they likewise recall the informal language of the hand-written, commercial sign. By explicitly tethering such personal, intimate modes of art making to the circulation of capital in non-art spheres, Grotjahn unites them with the speculative operations of the art world, the academy, and the betting house, revealing them to be strange bedfellows.

Painted nearly a decade later, Untitled (Circus No. 18 Face 44.36) has none of the blunt directness of the Booth series, but nevertheless shares with it an implicit interest in the status of the art object as a commodity. Grotjahn’s serial mode of making—a practice he signals in his titling conventions—is key to this aspect of the work. Though his consistent use of the word “untitled” might seem to undermine the very act of titling, Grotjahn’s reliance on the parenthetical descriptive title—which identifies the work’s relation to both present and past series of work—enacts a shift of focus away from the unique or individual painting (what a title is often used to identify) and towards larger bodies of works to which the painting belongs. To do so, is to point to the ways the work accrues meaning and value in relation to larger, often market-driven systems of cataloguing and distributing fine art.

Grotjahn’s systematic titles likewise raise questions about authorship and artistic agency in relation to the present booming market for contemporary art. While titling a work “untitled” is now a familiar choice, historically, titles of artworks were assigned not by artists themselves, but by the middlemen who act as primary agents of the work’s exchange and circulation. As art historian E.H. Gombrich noted, the act of titling a unique artwork as such “is a by-product of the mobility of images.” At a time when high end contemporary art (especially painting) is more widely dispersed and exchanged than ever before, Grotjahn’s inversion of such conventions reads as a playful rebuke of this historical pattern and a tongue and cheek attempt to assert his own mode of self-branding. This aim finds material echoes in the painting’s overwhelming tactility and sculptural physicality (a reminder of the artist’s labor) and in the hand-scrawled painted signature and date that appears in the lower right-hand corner. Like the face that appears buried under the weight of many layers of pigment, the artist (and his guarantee of authorship) peeks through.

Artist Profile

Mark Grotjahn
American, born 1968

Written by Jenny Harris, PhD Candidate Department of Art History, 2027

Over the course of his career, Mark Grotjahn (b. 1968, Pasadena) has become known for paintings that stage endless interplays between abstraction and figuration, graphic mark making and illusionistic space, and concept and craft. In his first major project, Sign Exchange (1993-1998), he repainted the shop signs of Bay Area and Los Angeles businesses—from liquor stores and restaurants to butcher shops and newsstands—and asked their owners to exchange them for the originals. For Grotjahn, the gesture was a way of connecting the hermetic concerns of the artworld to the larger economic operations of everyday life. And it became the basis for a decades-long investigation of the sign-like qualities of painting—how they read graphically and what it means for them to be signed or authored by an individual artist.

After receiving his MFA from the University California at Berkeley, and moving to Los Angeles in 1996, Grotjahn pursued these interests in a series of neatly delineated yet related bodies of work that are typically noted in the descriptive parenthesis of his titles. First came the Perspective drawings and paintings, begun in the late 1990s, in which he combined the pictorial convention of one- and two-point perspective—a technique invented in the Renaissance to convey a sense of three-dimensional space—with vibrant swaths of color that appear flat or abstract while likewise evoking receding vistas. These early works developed into several subsequent and related series such as: the Butterfly paintings (2001–2008), whose prismatic bands of color resemble abstractions of the winged insects; and Faces (2003–ongoing), which feature more energetically built up surfaces of swirling paint and hints of buried faces suggested by slitted eyes, rounded nostrils, and in some cases the mysterious lips of a mirthful grin. Throughout each of these bodies of work, Grotjahn mines and expands the conventions of painting—pursuing repetition and seriality of color as a means of new discovery.

Related Links

The Art Collection of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Untitled (Poker Set Chicago, $10,000 Seed Money, 5 Days $40-80 Texas Hold’Em, Commerce Casino Los Angeles, and Total Loss $4,602) (2006)