Assaulting the canvas with a dizzying shift of perspectival planes, Ghenie fabricates coexistent and polysemic images that in turn generate a set of open-ended meanings. Ghenie’s composition is at once enigmatic, self-reflective and highly emotive. Pathos, solemnity and the weighty presence of the fateful all unfold in this obscure theatre of images. Through a process of cyclical overpainting and excavation, pigment appears exquisitely dragged and manipulated. The muted colour palette, with heavy accentuations of crimson and azure, is certainly ominous, while an intriguing use of chiaroscuro alludes to the divine. Ghenie’s expressionist execution recalls the energy of Francis Bacon whilst his depiction of light heralds titans of the Renaissance, Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Ghenie has described his painterly approach: “on one hand, I work on an image in an almost classical vein: composition, figuration, use of light. On the other hand, I do not refrain from resorting to all kinds of idioms, such as the surrealist principle of association or the abstract experiments which foreground texture and surface” (Adrian Ghenie in conversation with Magda Radu, ‘Adrian Ghenie: Rise & fall’, Flash Art, November-December 2009, p. 49).
There is a palpable sense of pain and brutality upon the canvas. The pictorial field utilises a definitive juridical infrastructure; linear formations reminiscent of an architectural construct found in prisons. Meanwhile, central to the painting, a decapitated yet authoritative Elvis stands with arms poised at the hip, guarding the Surrealist realm upon which he stands. In Adrian Ghenie's childhood, Romania was ruled by Nicolae Ceaușescu’s tyrannical Communist regime; a period of severe political oppression and unrest that has significantly informed Ghenie's work. Revolution led to Ceausescu’s execution and as such an increased access to Western resources. Ghenie found himself exposed to new perspectives, new strands of capitalist culture and history. The failure of the modern world brought about by such catastrophes of the Second World War is seen in conjunction with the rise of modern forms of entertainment such as cinema, film, music and television. As the first great global icon of popular culture, Elvis Presley is an extremely relevant and thought provoking subject. His myth has generated a universal visual cliché while his aesthetic endeavoured to cross the iron curtain and create imitative phenomena.
Ghenie’s father adored Elvis and impersonated the Jail House Rock singer throughout the 1960s. Imitating an image – mimicking that which is an invented construct – is something that intrigued Ghenie. Where in some of his paintings, the artist probed the complex legacies of figures such as Lenin and Hitler; in the present work Ghenie appears to be tackling the spread of popular culture and the power of the image. Similarly, this transposition introduces the narrative of Ghenie’s own rise to prominence as an artist. With solo exhibitions at museums such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, SMAK in Ghent and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest, Ghenie has continued to captivate audiences with the beguiling emotions of an inflected consciousness.
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