Adrian Ghenie’s Pie Fight paintings originated in the artist’s fascination with “episodes of history that will never be resolved” (N. B. Abrams, quoted by R. Wolff, “In the studio: Romanian Painter Adrian Ghenie’s Sinister Mythology,” Artinfo, March 5, 2013). Yet, in his later iterations, such as the present work, Ghenie invokes the more comic connotations of pie-throwing and, in doing so, makes us reconsider the meaning of such an act. The surface of Pie Fight Study showcases Ghenie’s tact as a painter, as he has aptly manipulated such rich impasto with a dynamic sense of energy, capturing the shock, confusion and surprise at the split-second of the pie hitting the figure’s face. Despite the blurring of the abstract strokes in the background and the dots in the foreground, Ghenie’s classical technique in his rendition of the figure (especially through his strongly representational depiction of the woman’s hair and form) creates a sense of surreality. The seductive jewel tones of red and green and the tantalizing texture of the thick cream obscures the woman’s face and distracts us–what we are admiring is not a simple depiction of food, but the instant of a comic tragedy.
The familiar pie fights from silent films and movies such as the Three Stooges were deliberately engineered farcical entertainment, but Pie Fight Study indicates something sinister is afoot with its choice of victim. A grey-haired woman in a dress seems an unlikely target for a cream pie; perhaps we see a moment of social commentary. Who is this woman, who is suggested here as not worthy of respect, but of public humiliation and symbolic assassination instead? Art critic Jeanne Gerrity has observed that Ghenie’s work invoke “the terror of Francis Bacon’s pictures,” (J. Gerrity, “Six Lines of Flight”, Frieze vol. 153, March 2013). Ghenie’s choice of subject throws into relief the double-sided nature of situational humor: when do we choose to laugh at the extreme absurdity of the cream pie, or feel the vulnerability of the victim, and why?
Pie Fight Study is a continuation of Ghenie’s attempt to characterize the dual side of the comedic act, and of history. With his Nazi-era historical mash-ups, Ghenie had started the series in an attempt to understand 20th century European history. Growing up in Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship, the artist applied to his art his questioning of why his generation historically struggled economically, to create paintings that became surreal blends of fact and fiction. His keen awareness of the contradictions of history contributes to how his images radiate an immediacy, foregrounded by a sense of absurdity. As part of the later series, the image in Pie Fight Study originates in stills of slapstick movies, sourced by the artist from the Internet. It deliberately gives us no context to the scene unfolding in media res–it is a fraught narrative by default, without any foreword or aftermath but for that which the viewer conjures up on his or her own. As in the telling of history, Pie Fight Study’s ultimate narrative is determined by its latest observer, leaving the observer with an unnerving sense of pathos towards the portrayal.
Ghenie represented Romania at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 and his work is now in the collections of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles among others. As a child who watched the execution of Ceausescu on Christmas Day in 1989 on television and witnessed the efforts to rewrite history thereafter, Ghenie’s work has a particularly profound personal resonance. Ghenie’s own mark in history will be, as curator Nora Burnett Adams said, “[t]o appropriate a convention from filmic history as a device for confronting and condemning history” (N. Adams, Adrian Ghenie: New Paintings, exh. cat., New York, 2013, p. 9).