Coming of age at the outset of the 21st century, Adrian Ghenie is a leading voice among a vanguard of visionary young painters who have revitalized the genre in the post-internet era. Wielding a multifaceted approach to painting that blends a careful eye for composition with a predilection for transmuting the real world through an abstract lens, Ghenie thrives on experimentation and exploration in the realm of visual representation and its ability to change the course of history. The Lidless Eye is a striking example of Ghenie’s portrait works. Often depicting historical figures or the artist himself in various stages of recognizability, Ghenie brings the lessons he’s learned from past artists to bear in an age of digital manipulation and a realization that history is shaped by visual culture. “I work on an image in an almost classical vein: composition, figuration, use of light,” the artist has noted, “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” (A. Ghenie, quoted in M. Radu, “Adrian Ghenie: Rise & Fall,” Flash Art, December 2009, p. 49). Happy to borrow subjects, styles, and ideas from the gamut of the art historical canon, Ghenie’s true talent lies in condensing, coalescing, and melding this mélange into an oeuvre that questions the underlying structure of images while striking new ground in the time-tested media of painting.
Executed on an intimate scale, The Lidless Eye contains all of the fervor and deeply textural brushwork of Ghenie’s larger works while also remaining true to his inquiry into how memories of the past can influence the future. In this work, a spectral visage is visible as the central mass of paint takes the shape of a man’s head. The titular green right eye peers out at us on the left side of the composition while an ear perks up to listen on the right. As is typical of Ghenie’s work, this painting draws upon the history of art by employing an extant work as his visual catalyst. Based on a self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh, The Lidless Eye continues Ghenie’s exploration and investigation of visual history and the powers that it makes apparent. The painting is specifically referencing a late portrait from 1889 by Van Gogh simply titled Self Portrait and now in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay. On one hand, the viewer can see the source material peering through, but Ghenie has made sure that the earlier portrait is only a jumping off point for his endeavor. Over the top of the recognizable elements, the artist paints heavily mottled swatches of amber, red, pink, yellow, brown, white and black that undulate and swell with each flick of the brush. Some strokes echo Van Gogh’s original portrait in the red of the hair, while others seem more like collaged elements pasted on after the fact. This particular work has corollaries to a series of collage works that saw Ghenie obscuring a reproduction of the same Van Gogh portrait referenced here with bits clipped from magazines and other print material.
Painted two years after Ghenie represented his native Romania in the 56th Venice Biennale, The Lidless Eye is a prime example of the artist’s singular approach to portraiture. By combining representative and abstract elements in a stylistic collage, Ghenie is able to draw from multiple art historical genres at once. “You can’t invent a painting from scratch; you are working with an entire tradition…,” the artist noted, “The pictorial language of the 20th century, from Kurt Schwitters’s collages to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, makes up a range of possibilities that I utilise in order to create a transhistorical figurative painting–a painting of the image as such, of representation” (A. Ghenie, quoted in “Adrian Ghenie in Conversation with Magda Radu,” Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat., Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, p. 31). By marrying Van Gogh’s portrait with figural rendering reminiscent of Francis Bacon, Ghenie pushes his work out of the present and into a broader conversation with history. His relationship with Van Gogh is well noted, having referenced the lauded Post-Impressionist in works like The Sunflowers in 1937 (2014) and Self-Portrait as Vincent Van Gogh (2012), both of which source from extant works. As a child, Ghenie received a magazine that contained an article on the artist. Lacking art books of his own, the reproductions of Van Gogh’s paintings became his connection to the life and mental illness of the Dutch painter. Transferring some of the psychological tension found in such paintings to his own canvases, Ghenie is able to imbue his works with a notion of time and artistic lineage.
Born in Romania in the late 1970s, Ghenie witnessed the execution of the country’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu on television on Christmas Day, 1989. This chilling experience did not scar the young artist so much as change his view of the world and instill him with a wary regard for all forms of media. “I’m not trying to make my biography like I grew up in a communist dictatorship—I was just a kid, I didn’t have any trauma. But what happened in Romania after ’89—the fall of the Berlin Wall—was very interesting. When you realize a whole country can be manipulated and made to believe one thing about itself, and then the regime falls and you find out that no, it was the other way around… I saw how it is possible to manipulate a whole country. What is the truth? What is trauma?” (A. Ghenie quoted in A. Battaglia, “Every Painting is Abstract: Adrian Ghenie on his Recent Work and Evolving Sense of Self, Artnews, February 17, 2017). The watershed moment in Ghenie’s life was understanding that media, art, and visual culture can be controlled by those in power to various means. By approaching these ideas in his work through eerie portraits, abstract landscapes, and compositions which actively acknowledge a debt to the filmic works of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch, the artist expertly wields expressive brushwork and historic knowledge to question and subvert image culture.