The End of History: Adrian Ghenie at Pace
Adrian Ghenie at Pace Gallery
January 19 to February 18. 2017
510 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, pacegallery.com
Adrian Ghenie, who was born in 1977 in Baia Mare, may be the most well-publicized artist of his generation to come out of Romania. While the city of Cluj has produced other major painters, such as Sergiu Toma, Mircea Suciu, and Serban Savu, Ghenie has become, for one reason or another, the figurehead of the Cluj school of figurative painters. A decade ago, he captivated the art world with bleak images of life under Ceaușescu during the waning days of Soviet communism. Since then he has, like Francis Bacon before him, grappled with the atrocities of history through the medium of paint. Despite the thematic consistency with his previous work, Ghenie’s most recent exhibition at Pace, alive with bright colors with hardly a shadow in sight, represents an aesthetic break from his past.
Ghenie’s earlier works contained overt references to twentieth century history. Following his paintings of shadowy basements and roadside executions, the Collector series from 2008 depicted the infamous Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. Rendered in bloody crimson and magenta, Göring’s portly figure, sourced from Nazi propaganda photos, emerged from an inky chiaroscuro to gaze at his art collection, the spoils of barbaric atrocities that ended up leading him to the brink of the gallows at Nuremberg.
Two of the large canvases on view at Pace continue in this vein of history painting. The Alpine Retreat (all paintings 2016) shows a lone figure with a dog lounging on a patio beneath a bright blue sky and striped hard-candy mountains. The placid setting turns ominous with the realization that the titular “retreat” is actually the Berghof, Hitler’s summer home in the Bavarian Alps. The figure doesn’t look like Hitler, but the floor and wall of the patio strikingly resemble Nazi propaganda photos of the Führer’s summer residence. Around the corner is Moloch (2016), another painting depicting the Berghof. The figure in Moloch — named for the Canaanite god of child sacrifice, a fitting figure to be standing on Hitler’s patio — appears less like the horned idol described in Biblical texts and more like a Picasso-esque biomorph, bloated and impotent.
The gallery’s side room is dominated by Degenerate Art, a monumental portrait with another Nazi reference, namely their infamous exhibition of modern art. A small collage hangs on the opposite side of the room, a study for the much larger painting. Fragments of barely identifiable biological imagery are layered on top of a Van Gogh self-portrait, with Vincent’s left eye being the only part of his face left totally uncovered. The rest of the face is blocked out with hair and bits of anonymous flesh; some pieces have stock photo watermarks betraying their digital origins. Ghenie’s collage process is significantly different from Bacon’s studio practices. The latter artist collected printed matter and photographs and allowed the environment of his studio to alter them: after an image was trampled, mutilated, and splattered with paint, Bacon would manipulate it further, folding and contorting the paper until the image gave off the sensation he sought. Ghenie’s collages similarly twist and recombine existing imagery, but his compressed and pixilated references have a digital dimension of which Bacon could have only dreamed.
The Storm is the logical endgame of Ghenie’s technique: its surface is a heap of fragments piled one atop another, translated into paint by the artist’s hand, a maelstrom of imagery that has become so twisted and blown apart that any traces of an original “whole” have been destroyed. Ghenie is a history painter working at the end of history. Modernist teleology has shattered, its shards tossed about for anyone to gather and rearrange to suit whatever ideology is trending at the moment. Ghenie’s work is similarly fragmented, pieced together from cultural detritus and serving no grand narrative other than aesthetic pleasure. Assembled from a variety of references, Ghenie’s paintings, and the collages that precede them, present history as a fractured pastiche of figures and places that never coalesces into a single factual interpretation.