Art review: A tip of the hat to Mark Grotjahn’s head cases at the Nasher Sculpture Center

06/11/2014 12:00 AM

06/10/2014 4:26 PM

Mark Grotjahn, a California-based artist known for his paintings, has a secret life as a sculptor, and the Nasher Sculpture Center is outing him as such. The works could easily supplant his descriptor as a painter, which sure beats “drunken jerk,” which was the last Grotjahn headline in Dallas.

In 2011, he left a Two by Two for AIDS benefit auction just as his donated painting was coming up for bid. He reeled down the driveway of art collector Howard Rachofsky’s Preston Hollow estate, raging obscenities, and fell down at the feet of Dallas Morning News society columnist Alan Peppard, who just happened to have his camera phone at the ready.

Inside, Grotjahn’s painting was making history as the highest sale of the night, $1 million, with the proceeds going to the Dallas Museum of Art and the American Foundation for AIDS Research, while outside, the artist was spinning circles in the ground cover, spewing expletives at the minder who had been hired to see that he didn’t go off the rails — all while Peppard snapped away.

Grotjahn’s better now — a little penance, a lot of recovery and a return to the scene of embarrassment.

The first Mark Grotjahn sculpture show is on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center through Aug. 17. While his pieces have accompanied paintings, this is the first time they have headlined on their own.

It is interesting that this follows the David Bates exhibition because Bates is a painter who was lured to the sculptural side in much the same way as Grotjahn. For both of them it began as a lark and soon proved so creatively rewarding that they now move back and forth between painting and sculpting, one discipline encouraging the other.

The artists use similar, humble materials; the common denominator is cardboard boxes and then, once cast, the boxes are often painted.

Grotjahn calls his boxes masks, and with their cardboard tube noses and punched out eye holes, they definitely fit the bill. He recognizes that they look like elementary-school projects; that was initially part of the charm. There is humor here.

It is impossible to look at his yellow box with two long vibrating noses, Untitled (Thrown and Expressed Yellow Sea Rose, Italian Mask M30.c), and not think “SpongeBob!” or to confront his tall vertical box studded with toilet paper rolls, Untitled (African, Gated Front and Back Mask, M34b), and not see a woman with a head full of pink foam hair curlers.

What began as amusing studio high jinks has become much more serious.

Grotjahn does not give his works titles, but they do accumulate them. In the studio the single-nose sculptures are known as French, as they are painted with a style reminiscent of the French impressionists; the double-nose boxes are Italian.

This is not racial profiling, insists Jed Morse, the Nasher’s chief curator, just a way to identify them in the studio. They accumulate a country, colors and an alphanumerical casting code, as well.

Gated masks are large standing heads that still have the construction elements of casting clinging to their surfaces. Gates, sprues and vents, used to facilitate casting, also provide stands, supports and an interesting exoskeleton.

The smaller casts sit on pedestals with their end flaps splayed for stability. Any gouges or tears in the cardboard seem to be relished, as they faithfully reappear on the cast. The uneven surfaces are then lovingly painted and the gouges become accentuated.

Grotjahn’s paintings are interesting, as are his sculptures, but his best efforts are the passages of paint on the sculptures. He seems to throw his whole body into surface contact with the bronze, and the results are delightful.

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