Mark Grotjahn at Blum & Poe: A Surfeit of Inspirations
By: David Pagel
Almost 150 years ago, Friedrich Nietzsche invited us to think of wisdom as a digestive track issue.
Rather than getting stuck in the mind-body dualism that had dogged European philosophy from Plato's day, the German philosopher suggested we digest ideas in the same way we digest food: drawing sustenance from the good stuff and eliminating the rest.
Mark Grotjahn's exhibition at Blum and Poe brings these ideas to mind, because it is made up of works that are themselves made up of undigested influences. If Nietzsche were alive today, he might say that Grotjahn's paintings were constipated — in need of a laxative to break free of the constrictive grip of their sources.
Titled "Fifteen Paintings," the L.A. artist's eighth hometown solo show delivers exactly that: 15 modestly scaled paintings. Each consists of a sheet of cardboard that Grotjahn has covered with loads of vigorously worked oil paint and mounted on linen.
The compositions are uniform and generally symmetrical, with a plant-like motif vertically bisecting the vertical works. Strong lines, often made with palette knives, pile atop one another, creating a claustrophobic, compacted atmosphere.
Some of the lines arc together, forming spear-shaped sections that recall leaves. Most, however, struggle to extract themselves from the gravitational tug of the central axis. This keeps a tight leash on Grotjahn's compositions, which squeeze the space.
There is no room for movement. Tension gives way to stasis. The muddled colors are suffocating.
Visitors are left with a dissertation-worthy slew of sources, both early 20th-century painters and contemporaries. These include Picasso, Braque and Joseph Stella, as well as Lee Mullican, Michael Reafsnyder and Helen Rebekah Garber. That's great company. But Grotjahn's academic abstractions are too tight-fisted and stingy to add much that is vital to the mix.