Preeminent Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie makes bold work that is rich with complex and ambiguous nexuses. In his canvases, abstraction pushes up against and melts into photorealistic figuration; historical archival images become surreal, half-dreams rendered in a brightly colored impasto; and personal and collective memory pool in a psychological swampland. Ghenie began his Pie Fight series in 2008 and returned to it in 2012; the cycle starred in the artist’s first U.S. museum show, Pie-Fights and Pathos at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver in 2012. This notable series engages with another unexpected juncture: the pairing of fictional comedy with historical tragedy. Pie Fight references the pastry wars that frequented 1920s silent comedies, when an actor’s face was smeared with custard to the point of anonymity. Ghenie freezes these slapstick moments and mashes them up with iconic images from Nazi history to a compelling effect. The paintings blur, smear, and scrape at the faces of key historical Nazi figures like Adolf Hitler, rendering them anonymous with a public “pieing” that adds insult and shame to the injury. A combination of childhood experiences, archival material, and collective memory form the basis for Ghenie’s visual reflections on a psychologically fractured and morally fraught Europe in which abuses of power were the norm. In Pie Fight Interior 9, an archival image of the dark side of European history is recreated with brightly colored and often thick applications of oil paint, including confettied clumps of hot pink and red pie that shame an amorphous green figure into sinking into his armchair. Writhing between realism and abstraction, the uncanny Pie Fight Interior 9 forces its viewer to bear witness to a visceral scene that is visually and conceptually uncomfortable.
Pie Fight Interior 9 presents a plush room that, in keeping with the theme of the Pie Fight series, likely figured into the Nazi regime and became known to the artist through historical photographic documents. However, the interior has been rendered nearly unidentifiable: it melts between abstraction and photorealistic figuration. Perfectly perspectival, the room’s bubblegum-pink armchair degenerates into haphazard blocks of pink oil that reveal bare swathes. The seemingly realistic drawers of the dresser, upon closer inspection, are thick lines of paint, applied with the palette knife that Ghenie wields in lieu of a traditional paintbrush. Across Realist and Abstract sections, color shapes the space. In Pie Fight Interior 9, the viewer’s eye moves restlessly from the heavily applied, vivid interior to the splatters that partially obscure it, drips which Ghenie refers to as “staged accidents” (A. Ghenie, quoted in, R. Wolff, “IN THE STUDIO: Romanian Painter Adrian Ghenie’s Sinister Mythology,” Art and Auction, March 2013). Formally, the work has stylistic similarities with Francis Bacon’s existentially horrifying paintings; reviewing the group exhibition Six Lines of Flight for Frieze, art critic Jeanne Gerrity astutely observed that Ghenie’s work “conjures up both the rigidity of Social Realism and the terror of Francis Bacon’s pictures” (J. Garity, Six Lines of Flight, Frieze 153, March 2013). Pie Fight Interior 9, like others in the series, grapples with the shame and pain of living under an abusive political regime and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a composite German word—emerging after the nation’s denazification—that describes the pain and shame of coming to terms with the past (typically in terms of social and political histories). Ghenie has explained that the humiliation with which the Pie Fight series engages “is a very strange ritual in the human species and still one of the most important features of a dictatorship. The best way to terrorize people is to humiliate them” (A. Ghenie, quoted in R. Wolff, “IN THE STUDIO: Romanian Painter Adrian Ghenie’s Sinister Mythology,” Art and Auction, March 2013). The artist speaks from experience, as someone who spent his childhood under tyrannical Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, and observed the eventual toppling of the dictator’s regime, which came to a point with Ceausescu’s televised execution on Christmas Day in 1989.
In Pie Fight Interior 9, Ghenie comingles abstraction and figuration; history and imagination; and, most disconcertingly of all, comedy and tragedy. In the process of this comingling, the work strives to come to terms with history’s injustices; yet ultimately, the canvas is consciously unresolved and unfinished in a testament to a profound trauma that cannot be fully worked through in either the visual or psychological realm.