Artistfacts: Mark Grotjahn

Artistfacts: Mark Grotjahn


Time to do a piece on a white American male painter, a group that today is often written about as if they live in  the dark ages of abstract expressionist painting. To this effect a lot of the press that Mark Grotjahn has gotten begins with his drinking and drug taking  (now a thing of the past), the strength of his market, the names of his collectors, and his ability to control his career and market. (Article in the New York Times by Robin Pogrebin Dated July 30, 2017 “When an Artist Calls the Shots: Mark Grotjahn’s Soaring Prices”.

His collectors are big names in the art world notably.  David Geffen is  quoted  in the article as saying: ” He’s the most important artist of his generation” and Alberto Mugrabi is quoted as saying:” He’s probably an artist who’s in more demand today that any other…- he’s on top”).   Mark Grotjahn gets a lot less press and critical writing about his work than who his galleries are- he has four: Gagosian, Anton Kern, Blum and Poe, Shane Campbell and he is not the kind of artist who tends to go into long explantations about what he is doing, his process and philosophies. No manifesto coming out here.  As Mark Grotjahn has put it,  he does not feel that as an artist you have to know exactly what it is that you are doing and be able to speak about it.

Who cares about all that.  Mark Grotjahn is a fabulous, abstract painter, period. One who focuses on line, perspective and color with a strong distinctive voice.


The two series he is best known for are both readily recognizable. He makes dense, crayon based paintings with a focus on vanishing points and a radiant motif- the Butterfly series and he makes dense oil based paintings often completely crafted with a palette knife that include eyes- the Face paintings.

He is comfortable with seriality, i.e. working on an idea over several canvases, or setting up a more rigid system of composition that lets him then explore the act of painting.

He is comfortable with both atonal paintings, one color, variant hues and with wildly colorful, exuberant mixes of color.

As his practice has evolved, he seems to have become even more comfortable with movement, color, line, texture and exploring how the medium is applied- crayon, brush, palette knife, hand.

At the beginning of his artistic career,  following in the footsteps of the 10th street galleries in New York,  he opened a gallery in Los Angeles called Room 702 where he worked and showed other artists. He also engaged in a conceptual, performance phase where he copied the signs of small business and exchanged them for the real ones,  then  exhibited the real ones in his gallery as his own artwork “Sign Exchange Project 1992”.


The Butterfly series are created based on a series of self imposed rules. He first selects a precise number of color pencils. choosing colors that hold together in tone and intensity, then,  picking the pencils randomly, he  applies the colors systematically from left to right. Investigating perspective and vanishing points, he turns the axis of a classical perspective renaissance painting 90 degrees from a horizontal line to a vertical line and plays with tow or more competing and tiered vanishing points. At times one gets quite a psychedelic feel from these. The Butterfly paintings were generally made from 1998 through 2008.


The Face Paintings add eyes, a mouth or a nose. They remain abstract, visceral,  totemic, primitive. Eyes peering through thick cut out paint, The color choices seem to include the entire color palette, not steering away from pastels and vivid hues , the effect is rich and strong. The faces are wild and shaman-like. This series contains  sub-series with names such as Indians and Non Indians, Circus and the Turkish Forest series. These sub- series are distinguishable mainly by the color palette, the number of eyes, or the formatting of the eyes from almond shaped to leaflike.  The strong vertical line in the middle remains the key  element from which the composition radiates. This central vertical band generally continues to displays two or more disjoined vanishing points and the paint within it is dragged, scraped, feathered. Mark Grotjahn’s use of paint is aggressive and expressive. One gets the feeling of energy, speed, movement.  His canvas is cardboard applied on linen. Underlying the paintings is supposedly a mask like face with a strong ground color that at times pokes through. The critical discourse surrounding his art ties this burying  of painterly content under the radial mark making to his grandfather a psychoanalyst.


As a release from the effort of painting, he started to make sculptures out of cardboard, often described as masks. They resemble the sort of work made in Kindergarten using cardboard boxes and toilet paper or paper towel rolls, with holes for the eyes and a  jutting tube – nose or phallic member.  Now being cast in bronze and  painted by the artist’s hand, literally as in fingerprinted,  they are elevated, separated from their childish beginnings much as the sculptures by Picasso and Miro left behind their humble origins. These are both enchanting and beautiful.



Some works are signed, some use a nickname- the Moose- the signature becomes a part of the painting.


Well deservedly his work now finds itself in many museum collections where we can enjoy them. Abstract, figurative, rational, expressive, the art terminology is less important than the immense pleasure one gets looking and spending time with these exuberant works. You need to get close enough to smell the paint and admire the techniques then far enough to appreciate the structure and form.

Enjoy them.


Artistfacts: Aliza Nisenbaum

Artistfacts: Aliza Nisenbaum


A young artist, do we still use the word emerging, with her first solo museum exhibition going on right now at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Aliza Nisenbaum’s work was also included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial and an exhibit at the Flag Art Foundation that same year, so as you see getting a lot of attention. Aliza is a figurative painter and is described as a political painter, born in 1977 in Mexico City Mexico, currently working in New York. She got her MFA and BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago. She teaches at Columbia. Ok so not so young.


In 2010/2012, Aliza participated in the Immigrant Movement International, a project run by Tania Bruguera,  the Cuban activist/artist, project which was commissioned by Creative Time and the Queens  museum. It is the works from this period that started the marked interest in here practice.  InitiallyAliza taught English through feminist art history which in and of itself is an interesting idea as to what the best way to engage with a community of largely undocumented Latin American women is, these women being the primary participants in  the project. Over time, as Aliza began to better know and befriend these women, she decided to paint them and invited them to be painted by her. This quid-proquo is important.  Aliza Nisenbaum’s work does not separate the artist, the viewer and the sitter. Her paintings are very intimate and caring. They invite you into the living space of the sitter. They are a result of a strong and intense relationship that she has with the sitters and the community they are from.  She establishes trust, pays the sitters for their time and at times gifts a painting to a regular sitter. She visits their homes, invites them hers, talks with them, engages.


The works are intimate, the colors are soft, although somewhat referent to the Mexican muralists. The perspective is off.  There are no strident textual messages writ large over the canvases. So why are her works deemed to be political? Why is she seen as being engaged in “Social Practice Art” ?  Because she actively engages with different populations. These are not figurative works of her family, her home, her friends. The work emerges out of the relationships she builds with people. How they want to be portrayed.  Because she is painting people who are usually invisible, yet within the paintings she often includes elements of their tradition and elements of their histories, providing a careful viewer, one who looks at the details of the painting,  clues to the forces that made the sitter who they are,  their pasts, their interests, their traditions, their dreams.


Aliza Niesenbaum believes that painting a person gives that person a voice and that that voice must be given dignity and pride of place. You must be “ethical”,  a term she uses a lot in your portrayal. In a world where images are ubiquitous, transformed to create whatever reality the maker of the image wants, she attempts,  generally successfully, to give the sitter, sitter who often is not powerful or wealthy, sitter who is in so many ways an unknown, invisible cog in a system, a presence and a humanity, a face one wants to know and befriend.

During her artist in residency program at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, prior to the current show entitled ” A Place We Share”,  she painted the guards, a reflection on the entry point to the museum, an institutionalized criticism of a museum, criticism here not meant or used as a possible negative but more as an analysis and, once again portrayed a group that is largely invisible and ignored.  She then continued to meet, befriend and depict various community  and neighborhood groups including muslim women.


A non figurative series reproduces letters from a friend who spend two years in prison. Some of the text is legible, some not. Drawing you close but maintaining the dignity and privacy of the writer. Honest and true, based on reality. Portrayal without a body.



I believe that biographical details are important in understanding an artist’s work, particularly in the world today but less so in Aliza Nisenbaum’s work.  Aliza Nisenbaum was born and raised in Mexico Her mother was Norwegian American and her father Russian Mexican and  at one point she studied psychology. However, other than speaking Spanish, being an immigrant and not belonging to any one culture therefore being open to differences, her background does not seem to be important to her current body of work. She is more interested in giving pride of place to the sitters. This comment is probably not true of her earlier works of flowers, which she would render to scale that may have referenced her mother.



In my opinion Aliza Nisenbaum is an interesting artist to follow. In a time of strident, in your face political and large, often loud statement paintings, she has a very different voice and sensibility, one that could easily be lost which would be a great pity, at the same time, she, in my opinion, cannot, should not, become an easily absorbed painter, where the message is lost in the technique and beauty of the work. I look forward to seeing much more.

I must thank her for making a lot of the pictures of the work available on the internet for me to share with you.



Artistfacts: JR

Artist facts: JR


This week I have chosen to discuss an an artist who has an immense sense of humor, sense of poetry and a strong philosophy about how art can change the world. JR is a french photographer, street artist, and video /cinematographer who engages in large public installations of black and white photographs that engage people on the street and change their awareness of beauty, fairness and humanity.


He goes by the initials JR and wishes to remain anonymous in the same manner as Banksy another street artist does.  He always appears wearing a trilby and sunglasses, often jumping in the air, full of grace and nervous energy. He has a very strong Instagram following on his site jr with over 1.1 million followers and 3,690 posts. Many of the pictures I am using on this post come from his site.

JR’s most powerful pieces artistically are those where he posts -as in glues -massive portraits of people’s faces or eyes onto buildings, rooftops, bridges., trucks, sails, trains, the French National Assembly, the Pantheon…. He brings art to improbable places,  places where there are few or no museums, creating projects that force a discussion and communication within the community where the works are installed and then further as the images are disseminated to the world.  The city is his canvas, the people within the poorer parts of the city his subjects.


As he discusses the evolution of his art, he says that at first, in Paris,  as a street artist he was making the art as a statement of his existence, his mark on the world. Now it is a statement that the people he photographs exist and must be seen. His work goes against the idea of advertisements.  The people are not glossy models, there are no logos, there is in fact no writing whatsoever on the pieces, not even a signature, often the subjects are making wry or funny faces. In the places where he initially makes and pastes his works  there is a hunger for culture and the art he brings belongs to and unites the people on the street. As he needs help to paste the works, curiosity motivates people to enter the project. Each image has a story.


While the works are usually made of paper, when he has pasted the works on roofs he has used vinyl which provide protection from the elements, making art useful in a more practical way. The works travel the world, reinstalled in various museums but also outside on other buildings, the stories behind the images continuing to be told. He makes a film to document each project and publishes books and lithographs of the images to raise money for further projects . Below I have set out a few of his projects:

Portraits of a Generation- 2004-2008 Portraits of young people, primarily men from the housing project of Paris.

Women are Heroes- 2008- To JR, women are the pillars of the community but men, usually own the streets.  In this project which started in the favelas of Rio,  he pays tribute to women who are often the victims and the weakest protagonists in areas of poverty and conflict. These women have asked him to make their stories travel with him and he has used these images on many buildings and even on the sail of a boat in honoring that wish.

Face2Face- 2007  Portraits of Israelis and Palestinians who do the same job facing each other, originally pasted on both sides of the wall, asking the viewer if they can distinguish one from another.


The ideas for the works often come from media news. The works are often put up illegally or rather without full authorization, in a grey area. They are not meant to be permanent. As he travels and goes back to the initial sites of the work he is often surprised to see what works have withstood the test of time. Many of his projects have been made in the slums or in poor countries. Africa, Sudan, Brazil, Sierra Leone, Kenya, India to name a few. He tells a a funny story of it being prohibited to paste images in India, so he pasted up white pieces of paper, which had a sticky part to them and as the dust of the Indian streets rose up, the eyes and faces on the canvases appeared.


After winning the Ted prize in 2011, JR asked the question, “could art change the world? “and challenged the viewers to ” stand up for what you care about by participating in a global art project and together to turn the world inside out? ” Inside Out” is an ongoing and  politically charged project that rapidly became a platform for protest and change, giving people a voice, a face, a way of turning  a selfie into a tool for democracy. Mobile photo booths go around and allow participants to have their picture taken and immediately receive their portraits. Otherwise you can take a picture and send it for development.

Over time some of his projects have evolved to include photographs made by others, photographs of other artists, athletes and dancers. Still in black and white, these works continue to shape the discourse with the viewer on the individuality and dignity of each person. Several of these projects, among them : “The Ghost of Ellis Island “, “Migrants Projects” and  ‘Walking New York” were all set in New York where he has a studio.


The” Wrinkles of the City” is another stunning, shocking series where he photographed the elderly who are the living memory of a city-  in Shanghai, Los Angeles, Havana among other cities. Many of these works were pasted on houses about to be demolished,  a reflection on the economic upheaval and the social changes that these people had born witness to.


Baby over the bridge at the Mexican US border in Tecate is his most recent work, bringing dignity and humor to the discussion about building a wall.



Some of the works are more site specific.  At the Olympic Games in Brazil he canvassed images onto construction scaffolding. The backstory here is also interesting. The high jumper from Sudan honored actually did not make it to the games because he missed the qualifying rounds due to an injury but JR brought him to the games anyhow.

And in Paris he hid the pyramid of the Louvre, using the old tactic of troupe l’ceil.


In all of his works the humanity and individuality of the subjects come through as well as the sense of humor and of concern with the world of the artist.

His latest film was made with Agnes Varda “Faces and Places”  and is just coming out in the States.

His lithographs and books are sold on and his galleries are:

• France: Galerie Perrotin
• United Kingdom: Lazarides
• China: Galerie Magda Danysz
• Switzerland: Simon Studer
• Germany: Galerie Springmann



Artistfacts: Chiharu Shiota

Artistfacts: Chiharu Shiota


This week we are leaving far behind the American art world, for a wonderful young Japanese artist, Chiharu Shiota, who lives and works in Berlin, Germany. She first came to my attention as the artist representing Japan at the 56th  Venice Biennale in 2015 with the magical and mystical piece “The Key in the Hand”.



I guess you would describe Chiharu Shiota as a sculptor/installation artist. She fills rooms with webs of thread  into which are hidden or interlaced concrete objects such as keys, stones, children’s’ clothing, musical instruments. Such objects at times seem caught like a fly in a spider web, at others like hidden gifts to be sought and carried off by the viewer. Although there is something eerie about these installations, they are also hauntingly beautiful and encompassing. Not only are the objects caught up in the web, the viewers feel that they could easily also be caught or cocooned within the pieces depending on the perspective or memories that the viewers carry within their psyche.

Chiharu Shiota’s works are made through a painstaking manual process. The threads are intricately woven as well as disruptively knotted, tangled or broken. Glue is applied at times after the woven panels are created to harden them. The shape of the latticework is often a triangle as a line is too direct and does not accurately portray the tangle relationships between people, memories, the world. Triangles upon triangles create a dense, impenetrable wall through which it is hard to see, let alone pass, yet often a pathway through or around is suggested or available. This path often also presents itself as a tunnel, an excavation to the past, to a memory.  The scale of many of the works is monumental. 50,000 keys were used in the Venice Biennale piece, 150 boats in the piece “Where are we going”  at the Bon Marche and pictured below,  and of course yards and yards of thread in all the pieces.

Memory, cultural associations, fear of death, presence in the midst of absence, identity, belonging, for Chirahu Shiota objects carry memories and meaning, the threads mark out or draw your attention to the points of connection, the complex relations within the world and all humans. By using yarn instead of paint she says she has freed herself from the limitation of painting, moved  from 2 dimension to 3 dimension yet kept the presence of the artist, the gesture of painting.

For Art Basel 2013 she wrapped an burnt piano in thick black thread and surrounded it with blackened broken chairs also tightly wrought with thread. The piece is called ” In Silence” and is based on a memory the artist has. When she was nine years old, a neighbor’s house burnt down and she saw a charred piano among the ruins. It has been remade under various titles and is a repeated theme in her work.

In “After the Dream’  and “Seven Dresses” or “Labyrinth of Memory” she ensnares long white dresses in the yarn-  are they wedding dresses, religious habits- clothes for Shiota are a second skin that are show the world who you are or who they want you to be, identity or desire to assume an identity, to be accepted, to be invisible. The absence of the body, the fact that we are looking at empty dresses is quite disquieting. These dresses, as well as the shoes used in other pieces,  are a ghostly imprint of the people who used to wear them.

“During Sleep” 2002 and “Sleeping is Like Death-2016”  or “Conscious Sleep” came about after her illness and like her earlier performances under the guidance of Marina Abromoviz dense, are visceral and difficult.  You are immersed in  a dream where life and death are forced upon you. The use of hospital beds give the work an added somberness when wrapped in the black thread, yet they become a source of hope in Flow of Life- 2017 where they take off like birds, soaring to new heights, new life.


In ” Accumulation- “Searching for the destination”  and ‘Dialogues” she uses suitcases. The suitcases move, bump into each other, like a crowd of travelers, or fly off in a crazy magical voyage. Once again she is playing with our feelings, are the people they personify off on a trip, moving to a new country, going home, are they filled with hope or despair, at the end of the road or the beginning?


A piece in Setouchi Japan ” Father Memory- 2010″ uses doors, removed from their original frames and sites and placed in a dense labyrinth where they evoke the loss of home, jobs and population, the dismemberment of the community that has occurred in rural Japan and other rural communities around the world, the displacement of people in our world.

A similar piece initially made in  Germany “The Room of Memory” uses windows. Doors and windows are borders, frontiers but also points of entry. Windows are eyes out from home but as these windows were originally gathered from abandoned homes in East Berlin they also represent estrangement from the homeland. An empty chair, often included with the windows and in other installations  personifies the absence of a being, the memory of a person or perhaps the presence of the artist.

“In the beginning was…”, wraps stones, This work departs from others as the object used is not man made but rather an essential building block, a more direct link to the cosmos. The web she has made with the stones seems to show them as an exploding energy field. Interestingly, she has said that what first drew her to the stones was the sound they made tumbling out at the factory .




The strength of Shiota’s work is that it cannot be pinned down to a singular, absolute meaning, It is enigmatic and its enjoyment and impact are very physical, you have to interact with the work.  You bring your ‘state of being’ or “baggage” to the work.  Because her large works are generally installations, the works are different each time they are installed. Are the objects in a cocoon, safe, isolated from the reality of the world or caught up in a web leading to death? What about you the viewer?


“I like to work with objects that have a trace of memory,” she says. “Old objects always have a story behind them. I start thinking of who could have used it before, and my imagination runs free.”


Chiharu Shiota generally uses black or red thread. Black to her is interestingly more neutral, representing the cosmos. Red represents blood and blood ties, the inner world. She has said that in Japan there is a legend that a red string links people through time to their destiny, that a thin wire connects the heart to the pinky finger, and a red thread then connects from your pinky finger to your future lover. The red string may become tangled, postponing the meeting point, but it can never break. The thread symbolizes human relations, a 3 dimensional web connecting everything. Depending from where you view the installation, at the start or more outside or closer to the skeins, your perception changes dramatically. The closer you get to the web the more a feeling of anxiety, claustrophobia may set in. By suspending the objects, having them float around you she plays with your notion of  time and space, emphasizing the displacement of such objects from their original owners and their original use.

All the objects used have a meaning. A key represents opportunity. Clothes or shoes are a second skin- your culture, how you present yourself to the world. Suitcases are disconnection.  Threads are connection. Shiota says as to boats: ‘’our lives are like a journey without a destination, even though we don’t know where we are heading, we cannot stop. I wanted to emphasise this feeling of travelling with nowhere to go whilst alluding to a search for a sense of belonging.” However her installations are anything but didactic, the viewer can  make up their own story around the object, you use your own history or memory or just plain imagination.

“A long day” has papers flying  around, like a mad wizard’s laboratory orin  caught up in a hurricane, the end of a dream. Papers are also used in”  Letters of Thanks” as does part of “where are we going”. Since I am drawn to the written word, I find these pieces to have a very intense feeling of hope, of messages being sent, of a whirlwind of ideas flowing.




I have never had the pleasure to see some of her performance art pieces. Chiharu Shiota studied under Marina Abramovic and early on in her career created some endurance based performances whereas today her performances are often done without an audience and recorded, and usually involve the making of the installations. At the beginning of her artistic career  the performances were far more difficult as in ” Becoming Painting” 1994, she says she dreamt of being part of a painting, and used poisonous paint and covered herself with it exploding the idea of what painting can be and ” Try and Go Home” where after fasting for 4 days she attempts to enter a tiny cave.

Fortunately for those of us who do not have private museums, she does make some smaller pieces that echo the power and beauty of the larger ones.



Chiharu Shiota has a wonderful website and I was able to get most of the photographs of her work from that site. I thank her for that generosity.