Drawing on a wide range of works from the artist’s recent practice, Pace Gallery is presenting a series of new paintings by Adrian Ghenie, drawing on the artist’s unique approach to both the construction of his canvases, and the position his work takes in its relation to broader timeline of European painting and political history.
Frequently exploring the fraught landscape of Central Europe’s violent past during the first half of the 20th Century, Ghenie’s work frequently explores the political and human consequences of the era, often through gory, surreal transpositions of historical figures and Ghenie’s own image in his canvases. Here, however, the artist has expanded his practice into more broadly executed compositions, sweeping landscapes incorporating his honed sense of figuration in engagement with broader landscapes, rendered in scraped and squeegeed expanses of paint that give the works a sweeping sense of energy and power. Crossing the Sea of Reeds, for instance draws on contrasts between lifelike creatures and sweeps of color forming others, each united by the swirling energy of the water bounding each form, ultimately presenting a work that see-saws between an energetic seascape and an abstract deconstruction of these same forms.
What’s perhaps most interesting in Ghenie’s work are the broader strokes of political history that he casually subjects to his own interpretive lens. In one room, the artist’s Degenerate Art warps van Gogh’s iconic self-portrait through the artist’s own fractured approach to figuration, twisting the artist’s own expressive approach to portraiture into an even more jagged, stuttering final form that echoes Ghenie’s own self-portraits nearby. In turn drawing on the history of Nazi suppression of the more formally adventurous works of the 20th Century, Ghenie recasts the broader history of European painting through the same political lens. His reproduction of van Gogh is overshadowed by an authoritarian force that may well have expunged his work from the annals of art history given the chance. Presented here in its deconstructed form, Ghenie pushes these threads of the artist’s own formal subversions into the foreground.
This exploration and repositioning of the subtle subversions and innovations of 20th Century, and broader historical threads bubble to the surface across a wide range of works on view here. Rest During Flight Into Egypt, for instance, plays on iconographies explored elsewhere in the show, producing images of European youth during the war-torn decades of the 30’s and 40’s, yet pushes a parallel with the early years of Christ, who fled with his family to Egypt to escape the mass infanticide his birth triggered. The hills around Ghenie’s figures are soaked in red, hinting at a savage violence in the background of the image, and a shadowy figure lurks just below a cloud of pink dust, offering additional ominous threads to complicate the image. These are situations suspended between times and concepts, ultimately bringing a shared narrative of persecution and desperation, violence and migration common in the stories of the Bible, and adding a new sense of historical depth to the current political situations surrounding the fate of refugees fleeing war in the Middle East.
This sense of political context, and the broader narratives of European painterly history that his predecessors so often built their works upon, underscores Ghenie’s masterful exploration of the canvas as a site for the continued exploration, and revelation of these contexts, and contradictions, in the modern world. His work is on view through February 18th.
— D. Creahan
Adrian Ghenie: Recent Paintings [Pace Gallery]