Then and Now: Two Shows by Mark Grotjahn
Mark Grotjahn: Sign Exchange 1993-98 at Karma
January 8 to February 7, 2016
39 Great Jones Street (between Bowery and Lafayette Street)
New York, 917 675 7508
Mark Grotjahn: Untitled (Captain America) at Gagosian
January 19 to February 20, 2016
980 Madison Avenue (between 76th and 77th streets)
New York, 212 744 2313
The title of Mark Grotjahn’s show at Gagosian is “Captain America,” after the comic book character created in 1941, the year of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of America’s involvement in World War II. In the comic, Captain America fought against the Axis powers, knocking out Nazis and Japanese soldiers in storylines that promoted extreme patriotic fervor. It’s a strange thing that this suite of 10 drawings is noted in the gallery’s press materials as “first shown in the Kaikai Kiki Gallery in Tokyo,” as if embedded within Grotjahn’s works is a parallel heroic narrative.
For this series (it is only necessary here to describe one, as the other nine are essentially the same with slight variation) Grotjahn used the red, white and blue Captain America color scheme. The drawings distill motifs from his two major bodies of work: the “Butterfly” and “Face” paintings, seen in his oeuvre since the early 2000s. Each piece presents a “Butterfly”-like radial of alternating red and blue bands against a chalky white surface. The bands radiate from, or recede into, a central vanishing point. Over the image, hastily painted yellow eye shapes cover the surface at random. These “eyes” (a recurrent motif in Grotjahn’s “Face” paintings), though omnipresent across the series, are faint and barely register against the bold design of the main image. The vitality and ecstasy that are so primal in those earlier works has given way to bland seriality in the new series. While the title evokes a spirit of play, it also feels a bit sinister as it flags the artist as a hyper-masculine, self-proclaimed hero.
On Great Jones Street Grotjahn’s “Sign Exchange” project was presented at Karma, a gallery that often shows decidedly un-auspicious projects and DIY projects by artists of stature, including Brice Marden, Julian Schnabel, Rudolf Stingel, Stanley Whitney, Chris Martin. Between 1993 and 1998, Grotjahn, just out of UC Berkeley, began replicating liquor store and bodega signs from his neighborhood. He would then trade the shop owners his copies for their originals, which are on view. The result is an archive of signs and hand-painted advertisements resplendent in their low-budget glory. The tightly curated sampling of these signs (as well as several pastel painted flower stands) feels precious in a way that the then-25-year-old Grotjahn likely never intended. At the right of the entrance, a long line of multicolored index card-sized ads were hung end-to end in a kind of continuous banner of liquor brands, prices and keyed-up color; I was reminded of the nearly 10-foot-long line of paint chips that horizontally bisects Rauschenberg’s 1955 opus Rebus.
The “Sign Exchange” project is a relational aesthetics experiment wrapped in a post-Duchampian gesture: the signs register as Art because the artist dubs them as such. Ten years ago, as Grotjahn was hitting his stride, achieving critical and market success, the “Signs” project might have thrown institutions and collectors off of his scent. Grotjahn’s success is as a formalist painter; now, with his work firmly in the canon of aughts-abstraction, galleries and curators have more freedom to exhibit examples of his less conventional (i.e. less collectible) output. In 2014, Grotjahn’s painted bronze “Head” sculptures (originally conceived as studio experiments made with discarded beer boxes and toilet paper roles) were shown at the Nasher Museum in Dallas, concurrent with a survey of his “Butterfly” paintings at Blum + Poe’s Upper East Side outpost.
Grotjahn is the ideal artist for our time. He presents an image of authenticity: his work seems approachable enough — it’s AbEx without the heartache — and is systematic with the just the right inflection of happy accident to present an air of humanity. It was prescient that Grotjahn had, in the early to mid 1990s, become so interested in advertising and signage (their main function is to broadcast prices and sell goods). The work in the Gagosian show does the same thing, though its messaging is subtler. Advertising has long been free game for artists to use in their work but Grotjahn actually presents original ads in “Sign Exchange,” a gesture that seems all the more potent given his rapidly rising star. But the shadow side of Grotjahn’s success is seen in the redundant, conceptually thin uptown show at Gagosian (not to mention his self-consciously scrappy “Head” sculptures at Anton Kern on view just three months ago). For the last three years, Grotjhan has shown his work non-stop in museums and galleries (often with ambitious, concurrent exhibitions) and this frenzied exhibitionism seems to have culminated in his fatigue.