Mark Grotjahn’s ‘Nine Faces’ (2009–11) are entropic portraits. Grotjahn’s starbursts, butterflies and radiating imagery, which speak so powerfully to the symbolism of beginnings and ends – sunrises and sunsets, genesis and apocalypse – have typically had a touch of coldness in their blunt delivery. The faces emanate from softer horizons, and they undulate and twist so as to distort and hide their previous associations. My initial impression on entering the gallery was of a wave of iridescent feathers from birds as various as exotic peacocks to familiar robins.
The intensely worked lines of oil paint, more scraped and manicured than painted, sit atop a base of cardboard. This, in addition to the globs of congealed scrapings from the palette knife at the edges of the canvas, lend an incredible bulk to the medium. There is a gravity that draws the eye closer and closer to the surface – a sensuality to the paint that resides somewhere between the abstract paint-scapes of Gerhard Richter and the gooey liquidity of flesh in Lucien Freud’s portraits. This thickness is something of a mirage, and Grotjahn toys with the cardboard: in Untitled (Side Swiped and Carved Face 41.32) (2009–10), for example, he cuts into it and excavates shapes, subtly alternating the depth of the surface. It’s all a matter of scale though – as the works appear initially to be thickly encrusted, so small differences in the topography of the surface seem to require massive quantities of paint.
The faces only emerge as a secondary theme, after the paint and the line. Evolution is at work, the sense of a living, pulsating organic force that has been injected into the earlier butterflies. But they are hardly human faces, and toy with the limits of recognition. Grotjahn’s eyes sometimes act in tandem (as on faces), but more often they behave as independent entities, and the ellipses populate the canvas without paying heed to orientation, becoming hieroglyphs for seeing more than anything else. At times it is only the eyes that need make the face, as in Untitled (S 1 Full Frontal Face 41.25) (2009–10) which has the morbid tantalizing simplicity of a woman hidden under a burkha. Untitled (Vertical Redand Black Face 41.59) (2011) features only eyes as well, but all pretense of symmetry has been dispensed with and what is left is alien and threatening, with a few circles and an ellipse inhabiting a seemingly uncontrollable streaked scarlet bloom, but still the conceit of the composition of the face holds; it just takes a moment to coalesce.
The faces in which Grotjahn adds more features achieve an even greater degree of foreignness. Slowly what emerges from the swirls of lines and textures are the noses – not necessarily human, they are more reminiscent of bonobos or mandrills – as in Untitled (Yellow Brown and Pink Big Nose Face 41.03) (2010). They have an unformed quality, just the nostrils: two holes, often merely two calligraphic circles. They are fearsome caricatures though, with very little humour, and share the fascination with the coldness of nature that Picasso conjured up with the animistic masks that he substituted for the faces of the prostitutes in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
There are two types of organisms depicted in the exhibition, reminiscent of H.G. Wells’ descriptions of the Eloi and Morlocks in The Time Machine (1895); the more spiritual paintings that only depict eyes, and the earthier, more awkward werewolf-like faces. This primitivism lends itself to Grotjahn’s aesthetic, as the simple forms seem to emanate from a central point, an atypical symmetrical organization. Like the butterflies and previous faces, there is a gesture towards the simple and lighthearted, but it soon becomes profoundly mired in a much darker sinister side.