Ghenie 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’. (The artist interviewed by Magda Radu, ‘Adrian Ghenie: Rise & fall’, Flash Art, November-December 2009, p.49). The King initially recalls the art historical tradition of portraiture but set within this context even the title of the present work dislocates; ‘The King’ could be any man, a role rather than an individual. The broad sweeping strokes of paint and the foregrounding of texture in the work, force the viewer to consider what we understand by representation and what constitutes an ‘icon’.
The King, executed in 2009, is one of a series of portraits of Elvis Presley, all of which explore the dichotomy between the public persona and the private individual. Elvis represents the ultimate man-turned-cultural icon, a figure who is intensely known and yet fundamentally enigmatic. Ghenie’s portrait is that of the icon rather than the man; the regal, imposing figure of Elvis is fractured and distorted, the colours fade in and out with paint running down the canvas as though the image might simply wash away. The figure of Elvis dominates the pictorial plane, larger-than-life, he is almost grotesquely present and yet seems to be on the cusp of slipping away from us into the darkness. Ghenie skilfully transforms this immediately recognisable figure into something new, opening up the portrait into a meditation on the darker side of celebrity and modernity’s transitory lionisation of fame.
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