Adrian Ghenie: about the artist and his show at S.M.A.K.

January 19, 2011

On December, the 2nd, 2010, the second museum solo show of the emerging, yet esteemed, controversial, yet significantly revered Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie was opened in Gent, namely at the S.M.A.K. (Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst), probably one of the leading and certainly one of the most dynamic institutions for contemporary art in Europe. The exhibition summed up, more or less comprehensively, the artist’s works produced over a period of roughly two years, including mostly painting (the artist’s medium of predilection), but also a few of his so called studies (predominantly black, white and grey collages of printed images and paint) and the impressive installation titled Dada Room. From the perspective of the art critical discourse, the show at S.M.A.K. is a very good opportunity to bring into discussion several rather unflattering critical assessments of his recent artistic production.

Thus, a more and more frequent accusation with regard to Ghenie’s art is that it is easy: easy as in kind of too rapidly done, easy to understand as immediate message or in terms of content and, as some keep this also in mind, easy to sell. All these would presumably make his art of the last three years or so facile and consequently somewhat irrelevant, if not plainly dull. Almost as if to contribute to proving these allegations right, the show in Gent, just as the one in Bucharest, opened towards the end of 2009 at the National Museum for Contemporary Art, lacked a title, as well as a serious curatorial problematization of his production. I don’t know if this is becoming a PR strategy or a conceptual feature assumed by the artist, but what I’m sure of is that, from the outside, it looks as if his curators appear to believe the same as his detractors: that all you can do with his works is to hang them on the white walls as a gathering of collectible items realized by a young, charming star of the international art scene, which actually lack serious and poignant conceptual content or intellectual insightfulness.

However, I believe that the above mentioned negative assessments of Adrian Ghenie’s art are not really founded and I shall try bellow to substantiate my position. Also, another rejection of the young Romanian’s art is concerning a sort of mannerism, the fact the he had supposedly become stuck in the redundancy of a painterly recipe, the use of which would allegedly be detectable throughout most of his body of works. Now, I think the S.M.A.K. exhibition in itself is doing a pretty good job in refuting this critical perspective and I will attempt also further on to briefly circumscribe the rather simple, yet compelling way in which the show is doing this.

Let’s take into consideration, first of all, the issue of easiness, in the three above evoked meanings. It is true and it doesn’t require to be a keen expert or an exceptionally skilled painter to realize it, that Ghenie is painting (when I say “painting”, I refer to the actual action of putting paint on the surface of the canvas) rather fast. I’ve argued elsewhere that this rapidity is paired by a rather painstaking effort of  building the works, conceptually and compositionally, but even that is not necessarily important here. It seems to me to be much more useful at this point the recollection of the fact that the history of art (of whichever sort one might fancy or favour) comprises quite a number of fast, easy working painters. Far from my intentions to say by this that Ghenie is the equal of Rubens, for example. However, if this kind of easiness is obviously not a solid argument for excluding someone’s oeuvre from the art history, it certainly cannot be a solid argument for denying relevance or value to someone else’s artistic endeavours.

Things are pretty much the same as far as the legibility of his works’ immediate message or conceptual content is concerned, or, even better said, as far as the plain character of their aboutness (to use one the most useful terms coined by Danto) is concerned. There’s hardly anything cryptic in the paintings of Balthus, yet they are charming, perverse and forceful; Courbet’s aboutness is hardly veiled, yet this doesn’t make him a discardable painter and so on and so forth. Moreover, if it is true that the contemporary art is a field where the multiplicity of criteria rules, it is equally important to find the adequate criteria for assessing a particular art work or body of art works. Or, Ghenie clearly seems to be one of these artists for which the criterion of the coherence between the means deployed and the intended aboutness is far more important than that of the depth of his subtlety or that of the hermetism of his elegance. And by that criterion, most of his art seems to be quite solid.

As for the issue of easiness caused by the fact that his art is unproblematically collectible, I believe it is actually linked with the problem of the already mentioned presumed mannerism. Of course, common sense will tell you that the collectors would more readily acquire the works of an artist which resemble other already collected works. However, firstly, just as it is bad for an artist to work in order to please collectors, it is rather pointless for him or her to work only in order to baffle or annoy them. That is unless, of course, the artistic project developed at some point focuses specifically, more or less critically, on the role of the collector in the contemporary art world, on the relationship between the artist and the collector under the auspices of late capitalism etc. Still, generally speaking, it is just as unfruitful for an artist to work with the collector in mind as it is blunt for the any type of critical discourse to discard (or to praise just as well) someone’s art because it sells.

Secondly, the show in Gent convincingly proved that Ghenie’s art is in process, in motion and, in my opinion at least, in progress. Both from the point of view of the deployed chromatics and from that of the embedded subject matter, the works produced in 2010 and displayed at S.M.A.K. are significantly different from those earlier realized by the artist (for example, those that feature in his Hatje Cantz catalogue and that were displayed in the M.N.A.C. show). No, there is not a stylistic revolution; he did not abandon figuration in favour of the abstract realm, nor did he entirely gave up the too much discussed greyish tones, choosing to paint with red, yellow and blue pigments solely. Still, an evolution is clearly visible (the Dada Room being obviously its most prominent epitome) and to abruptly coin his approach as mannerist, under these circumstances, is not the same as, but also not that far from downplaying Picasso for not switching styles fast enough, or  from dismissing Rauch because of his recurrent use of decadent – like and poisonous looking colour tones.

As for the exhibition itself, it was a rather compelling display of painterly strength and of quite personal understanding of the field of art and of history, although, it must be said, it was a bit crammed and lacked, in a certain degree, unity and coherence of the narrative. The Dada Room installation was arguably the most spectacular piece of the show, intelligently and meaningfully placed in such a way that one could experience it either on the way in or on the way out of the exhibition.  It consists in a reconstruction, of just slightly smaller size, of the First International Dada Fair built up in the tormented Berlin from the years just after the end of World War I. But, if the general setting of objects from the impromptu artistic venue is carefully reproduced, many of the objects to be found in the room, as well as the paint somehow frantically spread on the walls and floor make direct reference to Ghenie’s own idiosyncrasies and dilemmas. The installation ends up being an almost surrealistic and quite nauseating blend of historical reference and artistic studio, connoting both pride and fear, both hubris and neurosis. As it happened before in his career, he shows himself perfectly aware of the historical burden that the contemporary artist is more or less forced to sustain. This time, however, the prestigious ghosts of history and the  nightmares of the past seem to overwhelm him and the artist is violently, yet presumably uselessly trying to purge them: absent from the Dada Room itself, he portrays himself vomiting amidst its blurred setting, in a painting tellingly titled Devil 1.

The Devil / Evil is, for that matter, one of the most frequently alluded obsessions that can be detected in his painterly works produced throughout 2010 (since I’ve discussed the previous works of Adrian Ghenie elsewhere, I’ll briefly focus here on these more recent ones). The atom bomb is depicted several times or is alluded to in paintings that eerily and somehow aloofly present the destructive effects of its blast. The bomb is an obvious epitome of evil and destructiveness, although its creation is the result of deploying such defining features of the human race as intelligence, creativity and inquisitiveness. For Ghenie, the image of the atomic cloud is iconic for our contemporary civilisation, it seems to function, in his view, as ultimate symbol that can give us an appropriate, in depth understanding of our era.

However, he painterly approaches the image of the atomic mushroom with vigorous and mostly gestural brushstrokes, the final result being some unashamedly sensuous art works. There is colourful joy in these paintings as well as there is danger, they are, concomitantly and disconcertingly, visually delightful and sickeningly menacing. In other words, they are works possessing a quite legible, yet deeply paradoxical, arresting and disturbing aboutness. Thus, the manner in which the visual, media purported icons of the atomic era are depicted by the Romanian artist could make us think of and even reconsider the established (thanks to Hannah Arendt) thesis of the evil’s banality. Ghenie is not far from convincing us that the romanticists were actually right: what makes evil truly dangerous is actually not its banality, but the sheer sublime of some of its embodiments.

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3 Responses to “Adrian Ghenie: about the artist and his show at S.M.A.K.”

  1. April L. Wessman Says:

    Hello; I have been asked to find a price on a Painting titled “Nougat 2, 2010” by the artist Adrian Ghenie. Do you have any information on this piece? Thank you for your time and assistance. Sincerely; April L. Wessman eightsmom@yahoo.com

    • iacobbogdan Says:

      Well, April, I’m not really sure what do you mean by “to find a price”; however, the best way you could get precise information about the price of an artwork produced by Ghenie is, I believe, to contact his galleries, such as Plan B in Cluj, Romania or Tim van Laere in Gent, Belgium. Since the picture of the work is on Tim van Laere Gallery’s website, I presume that they are, in this particular case, the most reliable source you could turn to. All the best, Bogdan Iacob.


  2. really enjoyed this, very valid point re: the artist pleasing the collector/ Artworld. It’s an obvious, common contemporary dilemma for an Artist, if this is the case, I don’t blame him early on in his career, but today; well he can do no wrong & whatever he wishes I presume.


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