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Art review: Mark Grotjahn at Blum & Poe

March 12, 2010 |  7:30 am

400.MG815 Watching "Avatar," it's hard not to be struck by the utter strangeness of a fantastically complex high-tech movie that worships fervently at nature's mysterious altar. Digital primitivism is a peculiar faith, especially with 3-D glasses.

Thirteen mostly recent, mostly large paintings by Mark Grotjahn at Blum & Poe knock that sort of faith upside the head. Emphatically handmade, with layer upon layer of pigment built up with brushes and palette knives on cardboard sheets affixed to canvas, they wear their secrets on their sleeve. Like all first-rate art, they're more mysterious for it.

The result is sumptuous and mesmerizing – one of the most beautiful painting shows in recent memory. As with some earlier works, Grotjahn's obvious source for this body of work is Picasso's 1907 Cubist masterpiece, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." Specifically he focuses on the ferocious women's lozenge-shaped eyes, linear scarification and mask-like bearing.

His paintings, some as large as 8 feet by 6 feet, look spontaneous but aren't. Color and gesture are orchestrated as symbols to be read as simply and directly as the letters in his name, which are also deployed as shapes painted as parts of the compositions. Sometimes those letters are even cut out of the cardboard and reversed, as if the artist's identity were empty space.

Picasso's penetrating, even accusatory eyes turned up in later art, including Paul Klee's whimsical 1928 "Cat and Bird," where a feathered creature flits like a delicate thought through a feline mind; Lee Mullican's knife-edge "sunspots" of the 1950s and after; and Jay DeFeo's big, 1970s graphite rendering, "Eyes," which suggests the spellbinding experience of a waking dream.

400.2MG821 He is nothing if not ambitious in invoking an artistic pantheon. His predecessors often invoked tribalism as something powerful but remote from industrial civilization, which needed to be recovered. Unlike them, however, Grotjahn makes paintings that refer to Modern art as if it were itself a totem.

Forget nature, these paintings say. A conscious experience of culture of any kind is what identifies our clan, and art is a material sign of spiritual kinship.

Grotjahn is mostly known for hard-edge color abstractions that juxtapose two slightly off-kilter vanishing points. Their vibrant, tactile surfaces deny the illusion of deep space that, during the Renaissance, vanishing points were invented to create. The recent paintings, plus one each from 2007 and 2008, involve another contradiction, this one built on primitive founding myths of Modern art.

– Christopher Knight

Blum & Poe, 2727 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, (310) 836-2062, through April 3. Closed Sun. and Mon. www.blumandpoe.com.

Images: Untitled (White Face 815), 2009 and Untitled (Red Yellow and Blue Face 821), 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Blum and Poe, photo credit: Douglas Parker.

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