Installation of Untitled (Dancing Black Butterflies) at the Portland Art Museum
Mark Grotjahn's Untitled (Dancing Black Butterflies) is currently on display at the Portland Art Museum until October 17, 2010. The exhibition includes a series of very large drawings with a remarkable tactile and material quality. Mr. Grotjhan is represented by the Gagosian Gallery in New York and Blum and Poe in Los Angeles.
What was it like growing up in California? Did you go to LACMA in Los Angeles or SFMOMA in San Francisco?
I was born in Pasadena, but we moved to the Bay Area when I was nine months old. In terms of museums that formulated, shaped or exposed me to art, it was SFMOMA. Having said that, I did see the first King Tut exhibition at LACMA in the '70s.
Was there anything about growing up in the Bay Area that continues to influence your work today?
I grew up in Marin, and I'm sure being in the redwoods and fresh air was probably good for me. I played baseball.
Were there any artists who were influential to you growing up? What about California artists like Robert Irwin or John McLaughlin?
In my late 20s, McLaughlin became important to me because he made rigorous abstractions and was the first California artist to break out and have an international career. But I read Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual In Art at age 15, I liked Paul Klee, and looked at my grandfather's books on Picasso.
Mark Grotjahn, Unititled (Three-Tiered-Perspective), 1997
Is the work that you make in California different than the work in New York?
No, it is exactly the same.
I read that the work you made coming out of school was based in performance art. Are there lessons or insights that you experienced making performance that still inform your work today?
Yes, I always believed that art could be whatever you wanted it to be. But actually doing an interactive, social performance or intervention showed me that that was actually a reality.
How did the butterfly paintings and drawings come about? For me, they have a remarkable tension between these flat colored triangle shapes and a collapsing one-point perspective. It is like a geometric colored field painting and fractured renaissance perspective at the same time. It destroys and rebuilds the perspective in the same moment.
At the time I had just moved to L.A. and I had been doing conceptual performance work in the Bay Area. I opened a gallery with my friend Brent Peterson and started showing and working with other artists. That took care of a lot of my conceptual needs as well as feeling connected to a larger community. And I started to think about why I got into art in the first place. I was always interested in line and color. I wanted to find a motif that I could experiment with for awhile. I did a group of drawings over a period of six to twelve months. The drawing that I chose was one that resembled the three tier perspective, and that is what I went with.
Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Colored Butterfly White Background 6 Wings), 2004
Sometimes in your work the focal points of the radiating lines are close together and other times they are far a part. Each creates a different type of space. When the focal points are close to each other the lines almost create a coherent perspective. When they are far apart, it is like they are almost two different spaces that have been collaged together. When did you realize that the placement of the focal point of the lines could contain such powerful spatial ideas?
Originally I had no interest in perspective and I don't know that the work does contain those powerful ideas. I changed the focal points because it changed the composition of the works and found that it was visually interesting and worthwhile.
How do you decide on the colors that you use in your work? The work currently on view at the Portland Art Museum is all black and is from your exhibition Dancing Black Butterflies at Gagosian. The black is incredibly deep and rich, always bringing your eye back to the surface. How did you know that the black would work as well as the colors?
I had done one black dancing butterfly before this series. I looked at an image of it and thought it would be interesting to do one at a large scale. I did it, it worked and I decided then to do a series. Halfway through, I realized they would be kept together and that it would be the end of the color dancing butterflies.
When you are thinking about a new series of works, do you work out the series before hand in sketches or drawings, or does the process of the work evolve over time?
Evolve over time, rarely a sketch or drawing leads to a painting.
Despite all of the loaded art history connotations, when I look at your work with the faces I am often reminded of tribal art, especially the faces. For me, the eyes and the mouths often seem dislocated, floating above the space of the work. It reminds me of looking into a forest and seeing eyes looking back at you. While your work is certainly coming out of a different place, were you ever inspired by African or Oceanic tribal art? How did those pieces with the faces come about?
I like the description of the eyes coming out of the jungle. I sometimes pretend the faces are baboons or monkeys. I can't say I've been influenced by African art particularly or consciously except that I've been influenced by artists who have been influenced. Picasso being the most obvious.
Mark Grotjahn, Untitled(Face 742), 2007
In the Butterfly paintings, the center lines often seem to be diagonals that create trapezoids rather than being parallel to one another or perpendicular to the edges of the canvas. This seems to create a slight instability that allows radiating lines to create more space in the painting. If the lines had been parallel or perpendicular, they also probably would have been relatively inert and created more of a frame or a hard boundary. The diagonal lines in the middle of the canvas also avoid direct references to artists like Barnett Newman and John McLaughlin. How did you develop it in the course of your work? What problems were you trying to solve?
I think you are right about the space that is created. The horizontal and vertical lines are rarely, if ever, horizontal or perpendicular to the edges of the canvas. I think it throws the works slightly off kilter. I was interested in that with the three tiered perspectives. I wanted to throw your body slightly off without making it super manipulative. The butterfly paintings not so much, and they seem to get tighter and more regimented. With this suite of black drawings the only problems I was trying to solve were visual ones. I wanted the works to move. It's why I called them "dancing butterflies". Dancing refers to music, and music to some of the abstract pioneers.
Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Green Butterfly), 2003