Adrian Ghenie’s oeuvre questions the interpretation of history in our collective consciousness. Whether he is referencing the paintings of Vincent van Gogh or Mark Rothko, or the atrocities of the Third Reich, Ghenie understands the power of the image and seeks to dismantle visual complacency. Babe in the Woods is a particularly haunting example of the artist’s mastery of light and illusionistic space as they crash headlong into the history of abstraction. “I work on an image in an almost classical vein: composition, figuration, use of light,” Ghenie 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). By pulling from a multitude of sources, Ghenie’s work becomes a riotous amalgam of historical tropes, subjects and styles that coalesce into a visionary treatise on morality, humanity and the nature of representation. Bridging the divide between past painting traditions and the digital age, Ghenie works to combine these seemingly disparate sources while sparking new conversations.
Often resembling a deteriorating photograph or burned cinematic vision, Ghenie’s compositions deftly marry photorealism with painterly abstraction. Babe in the Woods portrays a solitary figure in strange surroundings. A child, wearing a large, dark coat, white hat with pom-pom and a white and yellow scarf, looks down as they trudge through unfamiliar terrain. Behind them, a box-like structure with what appear to be trees or pillars of some sort fades into the shadows. All around the protagonist, the setting shifts between something industrial to purely abstract. Tones of brown, yellow and black are prevalent, adding the somber atmosphere. The manner in which Ghenie paints adheres to strict spatial rules. This has the result of creating planar space and illusionistic grounds within his works that but for their formal strictures would only be heavy brushstrokes. The ground upon which the figure walks looks like rotting wood, but is in fact a mass of heavily worked paint. By using lighting effects within his work, Ghenie infuses each scene with a nostalgic (if not sometimes ominous) air that contributes to an absorptive reading of the work. The artist pulls much of this from films, and actively translates the experience of watching a movie at the theater into his work. “I’m jealous of the specific power of cinema to build a virtual state, and of its capacity to break with reality. For two hours, you’re completely under its spell! And there’s something spectacular and seductive about this entire story which has become so familiar to us” (A. Ghenie in conversation with M. Radu, in exh. cat. Venice, Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, 2015, pp. 82-83). By creating murky narratives that flit between representation and abstraction, while also requiring extended looking to glean all of the visual information, Ghenie is able to bring the viewer into his constructed world for a prolonged period.
Growing up in Romania under the dictatorial rule of Nicolae Ceau?escu, Ghenie was exposed to media manipulation from an early age. Looking back, he noted, “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). Harnessing these questions of trauma and truth, Ghenie seeks to create realities that exist neither in the past or present, nor the future. Instead, he probes issues of representation by combining appropriated source imagery with painterly smears of a palette knife. In this way, Ghenie’s subject becomes both the construction of history and the evolution of painting as they intermingle and coexist in contemporary times.
Widely known for his Pie Fight series, which confronts the Nazis and other oppressive regimes with slapstick custard, Ghenie’s approach to history is one of revelation and examination. By inserting historical figures and images from the past into his work, the artist is able to question how history is constructed and how power is dispersed. Sharing some key visual markers with artists like Luc Tuymans and the blurred photo paintings of Gerhard Richter, Ghenie relies less on referencing the appropriated image and more on establishing a space for reflection and introspection. At the same time, the artist has established his practice firmly in the internet age. Just as Richter’s brushwork mimicked the grain of film, Ghenie’s tableau hover between painterly abstraction and the glitch of a video screen or computer monitor. “If you look at a Rembrandt,” Ghenie has remarked, “you see that it is belaboured to a certain extent; things didn’t come out right somewhere. The return to painting relates to the digitization of the world, in a way, but not entirely. Painting is like a plaster cast of the times in which we are living. It rematerializes the digital image. The bulk of the images I incorporate into painting come from the digital world – I see them through my laptop; I don’t see them through a window anymore” (M. Radu, op. cit., p. 31). Looking toward the digital realm instead of the world outside is a potent commentary on how people have become sequestered behind their screens. Works like Babe in the Woods are fraught with the emotive content of post-WWII Eastern Europe, but they also speak to a more introverted, self-reflective view of history that focuses on the chaotic individual experience of life over the prescribed, orderly one shown in history texts.