Thick, gelatinous oil paint is smeared across the face of the enigmatic protagonist in Adrian Ghenie’s painting Pie Fight Study. Executed in 2013, the work exemplifies the artist’s entrancing pictorial style, which blends elements of abstraction and representation, history and myth, atrocity and humour to spectacular effect. The painting stems from the artist’s renowned Pie Fight series. Begun in 2008, this thought-provoking opus saw Ghenie reimagine some of the most notorious figures of twentieth-century history, in particular those of Nazi Germany, in the immediate aftermath of having had a custard pie thrown in their face. Drawing on the slapstick humour popularised by American movie stars such as Charlie Chaplin, the Three Stooges, and Laurel & Hardie, Ghenie’s Pie Fight paintings are at once comical and oddly disquieting.
Born in communist Romania in 1977, Ghenie grew up under the fraught and oppressive regime of the country’s then dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Deeply effected by his own experiences of political turmoil, the artist developed a more widespread fascination with the unprecedented atrocities that occurred within the Twentieth Century. Often dreamlike and uncanny in nature, his paintings grapple with the weighty burden of the past on our contemporary moment. He explains, “I’m not a history painter, but I am fascinated by what happened in the twentieth century and how it continues to shape today. I don’t feel any obligation to tell this to the world, but for me the twentieth century was a century of humiliation – and through my painting, I’m still trying to understand this” (Adrian Ghenie cited in: Jane Neal, ‘Referencing slapstick cinema, art history and the annals of totalitarianism, Adrian Ghenie’s paintings find ways of confronting a “century of humiliation”’, Art Review, December 2010, online).
A composition of rich and gestural magnitude, the present work exemplifies the artist’s masterful approach to painting. Dense layers of paint, in mottled hues of earthy greens, turquoise, and indigo, transform the background into an embellished and abstract realm, reminiscent of one of Gerhard Richter’s finest Abstrakte Bilder. Working with both brush and palette knife, Ghenie deftly creates a textured and tactile topography which is at once self-referentially painterly and hauntingly redolent in its multifarious evocations. Indeed, the impasto paint smeared across the subject’s face doubles over as congealed custard cream, obfuscating his features and leaving a suit and tie as the only remaining indicators of his identity. One cannot help but recall René Magritte’s renowned 1964 masterpiece La Grande Guerre, and indeed Pie Fight Study is deeply imbued with a sense of the surreal. Distorted beyond tangible recognition, Ghenie’s protagonist similarly evokes the canonical paintings of the British post-war master Francis Bacon who, like Ghenie himself, employed a technique of effacing, overpainting, marking, and tracing to conjure an intoxicating sense of psychological intensity.
Ghenie’s oeuvre is driven not only by the shortcomings of history, but by those of memory itself. Often fallible and unreliable, our memories inevitably fade and falter over time. In Pie Fight Study, the viscous paint or cream, then, takes on a third significance as the hazy fog of temporality. For the past is an impalpable entity, its fragments stitched together to form our cultural, collective and personal recollections, as much as our conception of history. Indeed, personal memory and social history are essential to Ghenie’s practice, and his subjects are manipulated so as to suggest an erasure, a palimpsest, a notion of reminiscence that transcends immediate definition, yet delves the viewer into a potent contemplation of the human condition. Playing with our perception of reality in such a way, Ghenie’s Pie Fight Study exemplifies the interrogative and captivating practice of one of the leading figurative painters of our time.
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