For nearly a century the search for the Primitive, the essential, untouched-by-civilization essence of Man, drove artists as diverse as Ensor and Picasso in their Modernist depictions. Apparently, this Conradian pursuit has not been completely exhausted, as the recent works of Mark Grotjahn at Anton Kern demonstrate.
"It was a distinct glimpse: the dugout, four paddling savages, and the lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, on relief, on thoughts of home -- perhaps; setting his face towards the depth of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station.” Conrad’s narrator, Marlowe, in paddling down the Congo in search of Kurtz, finds that he brings the seeds of corruption to the innocent savages that he has come to survey. In a similar vein, Grotjahn, with these paintings, seeks to bring a sense of purity, geometry, and order to the simple depiction of a human face but shows that such a task is insurmountable (at best) and fuck-headed (at worst).
Grotjahn has for several years been creating paintings that search for an almost antiquated sense of symmetry and order, a geometry predicated on a very Modern sense of balance as its First Principle. His Butterfly paintings, largely monochrome, sought to create a sense of proportion that ultimately was, like their titular, short-lived inspiration, undermined by the impossibility of such perfection.
In these works, such as the one pictured above, Untitled (Lotus Paul Signac Face 41.31)(2010), Grotjahn begins with a rough sketch of a human face (whether or not he actually has depicted a likeness of the French Post-Impressionist artist is probably beside the point) and then proceeds to scarify, with paint, strokes that begin to resemble a peacock feather pattern over the portrait. Does he mean to suggest a semblance between his own OCD working method and the pseudo-scientific formulations of Signac? Or is this ritualized overpainting some sort of Freudian death-of-the-father painterly act?
Picasso internalized what was then known as Primitive Art (Iberian and African sculpture, Egyptian tomb statues, etc.) and then transformed them, albeit with great prejudice, into individualized works; Les Demoiselles d’Avignon comes to mind. Braque, his fellow Cubist, took such activity with a grain of salt, stopping short of absorbing Picasso’s superstitious practices but still using some motifs found in African art.
What we find with Grotjahn is a return to the colonialization of art, as embodied by Conrad (or, in the visual arts, his contemporary Ensor), where the artist grafts his own interpretation of “the Primitive” over an underlying structure of already-generic Western Art (read: the portrait). Untitled (Geo Abstract Reveal Face 41.61) (2011) is as good an example as any other. The Futurist/Cubist/Rayonist strokes pile up, like tribal tattoos, until the original premise of the painting is obscured beneath a train wreck of paint.
It isn’t that these paintings are bad. That is the unfortunate part. It is, like the project that they nominally seek to illustrate, that they aren’t clear. Or, rather, maybe we have reached a point in history that has rendered the possibility of such clarity impossible. We can admire Grotjahn for attempting such a journey, much as we admire Conrad/Marlowe for his, with the understanding that it was pointless, doomed to fail, from the outset. The horror. The horror. - Bradley Rubenstein
Anton Kern Gallery is at 532 West 20th St. in Manhattan.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.