William Monk, Sam Windett and Mark Grotjahn

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After visiting a number of different galleries last week, I was struck by a few young artists whose paintings would indicate that they are responding to early modern art but not with irony. Nor with awe. I think all of these artists as continuing a compelling conversation.

There are two British artists, Sam Windett and William Monk, both born in 1977 but looking to the Symbolists in direct and indirect ways. And there is Mark Grotjahn, American, born in 1968, living in LA, looking at the Cubists.

Referring to Modern Art with capitals is in vogue but these artists do not approach the topic with the more commonly held cynicism. They are not exactly quoting but rather looking to aspects of the past that might capture our imagination and attention now.

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William Monk, "The Cloud Is Growing in the Trees II," 2015
Oil on canvas, 94 1/2 x 94 1/2 inches
Courtesy Michael Cohn Gallery

If Albert Pinkham Ryder and Marsden Hartley had had a love child, using the ovum of Agnes Pelton after the ritual partaking of hallucinogens, it could have been William Monk. Monk's exhibition is on view at Michael Kohn Gallery through June 27. The English artist trained in the Netherlands and won the Royal Award for Painting in 2005 while in Amsterdam and the Jerwood Painting Prize in Britain in 2009. His paintings do not appear to be done in cold, crowded London, where he lives, but out on Route 66.

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William Monk, "The Divided Cell (paravent)," 2015
Oil on canvas, 5 @ 90 1/2 x 25 1/2 inches
Courtesy Michael Cohn Gallery

The rich tradition of spiritually charged landscapes is taken to a new level in Monk's broad fields of sky and terrain. Yet, they are entirely of today. The Cloud is Growing in the Trees (2015), also the title of the show, features a broad sky of metallic silver, above narrow arcs of tangerine and teal, over a wide band of eggplant color stained into the canvas and a base of minuscule, detailed patterns. On many levels, this picture asks us to look more closely, embrace the feeling as much as the idea behind the art. Other landscapes are arranged around serpentine clouds and darkened forests while some are exacting studies of the dappling light amidst trees. A highlight is a four-panel work that reads as singular despite the gaps between the vertical canvases: The Divided Cell (paravent) (2015). An artist who can span psychedelic extremes, ungainly composition and painstaking refinement is worth watching.

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Sam Windett, "Jet Vanishes (28 December 2014)," 2015
Oil, newsprint, charcoal, and acrylic on linen
82-3/4 x 48-7/16 x 1-3/16 inches (210 x 123 x 3 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Marc Foxx, Los Angeles
Photo by Robert Wedemeyer, 2015

Meanwhile, at Marc Foxx Gallery through June 20, Sam Windett layers paint over strips of newspaper to build a sense of actual time into each picture. You can occasionally read a word or he adds the date onto a canvas but mostly it is backdrop to his paintings of mysterious intensity. Jet Vanishes(28 December 2014) for instance refers to the news but the actual text is obliterated by the flat white paint in wide diagonal strokes over subtle lines of muted color. A pair of circles may be goggles frosted over so that nothing may can been seen. Some pictures are influenced by the bizarre combination of René Daumal's novel Mount Analogue and the artist's interest in dirt bike culture. However, knowing such details lends little to the experience of viewing the paintings, which are very nicely done. (Also on view are Richard Rezac's thoughtful wall reliefs, aptly described by David Pagel as “dyslexic minimalism.”)

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Mark Grotjahn, "Untitled: (Non-Indian #4 Face 45.59), 2015
Oil on cardboard mounted on linen, 50 1/2 x 40 3/8 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
© Mark Grotjahn Studio Inc.
Photo by Douglas M. Parker Studio

If Windett's paintings appear to be labor intensive, even more so are the paintings of LA-based artist Mark Grotjahn, who has moved on from his snazzy butterfly abstractions of deeply delicious colors radiating out from a vanishing point to paintings of wildly if meticulously placed strokes of color whipping around a central axis. Some read as botanical, others roughly compose themselves as a schematic pair of eyes and nose. Faces and masks have dominated his most recent pictures as well as his bronze sculptures. These are difficult pictures, less willing to seduce or dress to impress than his earlier works. Like Monk or Windett, however, he looks to early modern art. It is a confident artist who takes on the disjunctive methods used by the Cubists, and their fascination with tribal art, with the goal of making it relevant for today. The show at Blum & Poe closes June 20.