On a mild Thursday night in January, I stroll in and out of a number of gallery openings. After a few sporadic visits through the galleries still holding on to their about-to-sky-rocket-rental-spaces, I wander into the Pace Gallery on West 25th Street to view twelve new paintings and five collages by Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie.
As I enter the large space, I’m treated to an array of colorful, multi-layered oil paintings displayed singularly on tall white walls. In most of these works the scraped paint creates a violent texture. The paintings include five large, abstract landscapes, four head-to-shoulder portraits, three head-to-shoulder self-portraits, and five collages, with the collages labeled as studies for some of the other works. All the paintings showcase Ghenie’s stylistic choice of blurring the line between “figuration and abstraction.” Rather than feel repelled by the explosion of paint, I’m comforted by a familiarity underneath the surface of each blotched composition. Among a series of portraits, for instance, I recognize Van Gogh’s head with collage-like layers obstructing the famous visage. Though the morphing of Van Gogh is arresting, it’s hard to understand if the intention behind the artistic gesture is a protest or a celebration.
I gravitate towards two of the larger landscape works. Both have titles connoting classical paintings. The first of these, titled The Storm, invokes the Pierre-August Cot’s paintingof the same name. But any connection between Ghenie’s The Storm and Cot’s work is far-fetched. I can make a loose visual connection between the voluminous and decadent drapery of the figures’ robes in Cot’s painting to Ghenie’s exuberant swirls and cutout shapes. But Ghenie’s work suggests a conflicted chaos. The colors are composed with musical dexterity, a visual harmony that moves with fluidity from one edge of the canvas to the other. It’s a friendly painting. I can envision the piece showcased with comfort in a corporate conference room. After further contemplation, I come to an understanding of why Ghenie’s painting is more than a friendly work of art. The key is in how Ghenie chooses to use abstraction. He is not corrupting form, but playing with it. This playfulness is not a child-like or primitive activity. Ghenie is a highly skilled painter and knows exactly how to manipulate form. He draws on the anticipation of the viewer. The conflict is the viewer’s desire to make a connection that may come up short.
Ghenie’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt is the second painting that intrigues me. I can see a link to the apocryphal story of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus fleeing Herod, which Caravaggio beautifully visualized in his painting of the same name. Ghenie’s reinterpretation places young people at rest from a great escape. A family of refugees or runaways, taking some time to re-energize before catching a train that will take them away from the perils of home. The female figure engulfed by a misty rose background, appears to be masked and so my assumption that this is a female form becomes questionable. Is this figure a friend, foe, or other worldly being?
In contrast, the figures of a man and a child are front and center making them the subjects of the piece. They also bear the abstracted faces that figure in many of Ghenie’s portraits. The blue body of water in the horizon gives the scene a hint of hope. I assume the male figure is a contemporary from his attire, Nike shoes and track pants, clothes that also make flight easier. The smaller figure sits on a blanket or coat. The larger figure’s body facing the child’s back. Both figures facing the viewer as if waiting for a response. Unlike The Storm, this piece incites more concrete interpretations.
Ghenie’s artistic preoccupations are complex. Though I recognize the echoes to art history, I can also see how Ghenie’s gestures add to that history, expanding the vocabulary of contemporary visual arts.
Art Nerd is a series of art exhibition reviews, profiles, and articles written by @gessydigsu.