Mark Grotjahn
Skulls 2016–2023
November 3–December 20, 2023
Opening reception: Friday, November 3, 6–8 pm

188 & 172 East 2nd Street
New York

Karma presents Skulls 2016–2023, the first exhibition of Mark Grotjahn’s Skull paintings, open from November 3 to December 20 at 188 and 172 East 2nd Street, New York.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Grotjahn would arrive at the Skulls. After fifteen years of Face paintings and more than one hundred Mask sculptures, Grotjahn has stripped back the disguise and the skin and arrived at the inner layer of the head, the twenty-two bones that structure the human visage and protect the delicate brain. The artist recently noted that he has “to remember that I am a body,” not only a mind. By introducing a symbol of life’s inevitable end into his vocabulary of motifs, Grotjahn sets his sights on his own corporeality. As such, the Skulls are his most intimate paintings to date.

Grotjahn initiated this series of small-scale, intensely tactile works in 2016 as a riposte to his transcendental Capri paintings, developing them further while recovering from a massive blood clot in his leg and clots in both of his lungs at his home in Los Angeles in 2019. A backcountry skier who has spent the last few years widely exploring the mountain ranges of rural Colorado, Grotjahn regularly isolates himself completely in inhospitable terrains. Emerging from these experiences, his Skulls capture in oil on cardboard the feeling of uncontrollable natural forces. In one 2016 work, a burst of energy enters the composition from the right side, blasting white, red, and pink lines over and off of the simian figure’s cheeks and forehead and into the cerulean background.

In contrast with the anonymized, monochromatic skulls of Paul Cézanne’s late period, painted by the Impressionist after the death of his mother and as his own health began to deteriorate, Grotjahn’s takes on the subject infuse the macabre with a colorful vitality that upends their potentially grave associations. A 2019 painting features a wildly grinning visage surging forward with eyes blazing through a field of bubblegum pink. Another 2017 skull is wide-eyed and insistent, its mouth ajar as if arrested mid-sentence, as bursts of yellow and turquoise explode upward from its cranium. Teeming with impasto and made with brushes rather than the palette knife that has defined the artist’s recent output, these paintings affirm the influence of Post-Impressionists like Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin, whose brilliant colors and clearly defined strokes pushed Impressionism to its breaking point.

While the Skulls all began as figurative drawings, Grotjahn’s myriad approaches and techniques yield a multitude of distinct representations. As Alison M. Gingeras writes in the catalogue that will accompany the exhibition, “Grotjahn’s pictorial systems allow him the latitude to oscillate between figurative referent and non-objective abstraction. With the Skulls, he establishes a similar framework to pursue permutations and mutations that occasionally drift radically away from his starting image.” The earliest works in the series are more clearly figurative—their subjects stand out against colorful grounds—while the more recent Skulls vacillate between dissolving inside of Grotjahn’s all-over daubs and re-emerging as image.

Confronted with the sprawling Untitled (Backcountry 55.46) (2023), a work from Grotjahn’s Colorado-inspired Backcountry series on view at 172 East Second Street, this cavalcade of crania assert themselves as tiny yet mighty. While the former series deals with nature’s boundlessness in sweeping palette-knife strokes that slash from one edge of the support to the other, mimicking the effect of skis cutting through snow, the Skulls are self-contained monads consisting of visible touches of brush to surface. Their buzzy contours describe figures working through the brevity of their time on earth, even as Grotjahn immortalizes them through painting.

Mark Grotjahn (b. 1968, Pasadena, California) investigates the possibilities of color and line in iterative series of paintings, sculptures, and drawings. His heterogeneous practice engages with various currents of twentieth-century modernism: his geometric Butterfly paintings, structured around multiple perspective points, reference Russian Constructivism and Suprematism, while his gestural Face and Circus paintings, made using a palette knife, draw on the physicality of Abstract Expressionism. The artist’s Masks, a series of improvisational cardboard assemblages created during late-night studio sessions, cheekily nod to the Cubist sculptures of Picasso. For the recent Capri series, inspired by the Italian island, he scrapes the paint from his abstractions and applies the resulting “slugs” in textured formations back onto the canvas, disrupting the underlying picture plane. Across each of his ever-expanding bodies of work, the artist pushes idiosyncratic motifs to their limits, exploring the tensions between difference and repetition. Grotjahn lives in Los Angeles.

Grotjahn has had one-person museum exhibitions at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (2018); Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas (2014); Kunstverein Freiburg, Germany (2014); Aspen Art Museum, Aspen, Colorado (2012); Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon (2010); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2006);, and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2005). Recent solo exhibitions include Gagosian, Gstaad, Switzerland (2023); Gagosian, Longon (2022, 2016); Gagosian, Hong Kong (2021); Gagosian, New York (2018, 2016); Blum & Poe, Los Angeles (2018, 2015); Blum & Poe, New York (2016, 2014); Karma, New York (2016); Casa Malaparte, Capri, Italy (2016); and Anton Kern Gallery, New York (2015). Grotjahn’s work is held in the collections of the Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica, California; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Cleveland Museum of Art; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Rubell Family Collection, Miami; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others.