An atomic dog in the Dada room: the strange and wonderful paintings of Adrian Ghenie (SMAK)

‘OK’, they both said, and swiftly turned around, leaving that gloomy shed two seconds after they’d come in. There I was, standing in that same corner where I had been standing for the last five minutes or so. They had decided on the spot that Adrian Ghenie‘s shed was of no interest at all. I was still going over all the different elements in that mysterious room, as I felt it held some clues that would help me decipher the wonderful canvases of this Romanian painter, currently at show at SMAK (Ghent, through March 27). Ghenie is showing some recent works on paper at Tim Van Laere Gallery (Antwerp, through March 12) too.

First of all: the images you see here, don’t do those paintings justice. You really have to stand in front of them, and almost feel those colours and those brush strokes. A touch of Francis Bacon mixed with a pinch of surrealism. And when you stand in front of them, something else will happen: there will always be at least one thing that you will not notice at first sight. There’s always a figure or another component that will elude you, which you will suddenly notice when you take a closer look.

Is it because Adrian Ghenie thinks of his paintings as film images? Because that’s what he does, as he explains in interviews: ‘Film has provided the most important ingredient of my visual background. When I paint I have the impression that I am also involved in directing a film.’ And: ‘I think consciously and unconsciously I want to master in painting what David Lynch has done in cinema. It was with Lynch that I started to build the visual language of my paintings.’ Ghenie admits that he has been greatly influenced by Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and by early slapstick cinema too.

Ghenie loves to play with recurring elements – a lot of which you’ll stumble upon in that Dada Room (an exact replica of the First International Dada Fair, 1920, Berlin, but with Ghenie’s works of art): dogs and wolves, cameras, the explosion of an atom bomb, Hitler, Göring or Marcel Duchamp. Once again: conscious decisions, of course. ‘If an image is not loaded with symbolic meaning on a Jungian level then it’s an empty image.’ Or: ‘My work is less sociological, and more psychological. I seek images that go straight to your brain, which you can’t help but submit to. If you paint a successful image, you’ll find it months later with a life of its own, scattered all over Google. My painting Pie fight study II (2008), I’ve even seen it reproduced on T-shirts in London.’

Ghenie’s paintings are of course influenced by his childhood: growing up in Romania, when that dictator Ceaucescu was still around. It’s as if the Cold War still hasn’t ended, in some of his work. ‘We inevitably live in a post-WWII epoch, which means that we constantly have to look back to that watershed moment in order to understand our present condition.’ But in his interviews Ghenie states as well that he is first and foremost interested in man’s archetypical lust for power.

‘I’m not a history painter, but I am fascinated by what happened in the twentieth century and how it continues to shape today’, he says in an interview with ArtReview. ‘I don’t feel an obligation to tell this to the world, but for me the twentieth century was a century of humiliation – and through my painting, I’m still trying to understand this.’

In the end, every single one of those works of art is about painting. And art. ‘I work on an image in an almost classical vein: composition, figuration, use of light. 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.’

Or: The ongoing debate about the death of painting may be intellectually stimulating, but I think it is also anachronistic. There is enough evidence to conclude that painting is not dead. And yet, I wanted to return to the historic context in which this problem was first articulated. I view key moments and personalities of the avantgardes like Duchamp from a great distance and from a reversed perspective. ‘

‘Although I recognize the liberating effects produced by the outburst of the avant-garde movements (of which I am also a beneficiary), I can’t help but notice the extent to which some of their ideas — exposed in time to manifold appropriations — have imposed themselves with such forcefulness as to become canonical. I simply want to question this state of affairs without making accusations. But I feel I have the right to see idols like Duchamp or Dada in a different light.’

And last but not least… is it a coincidence that his name resembles that English word for that invisible spirit with magical powers, genie? ‘Every element in painting is inherently inert. It’s all about how you activate them. Otherwise the work remains a still life.’

Quotes taken from interviews in ‘Flash Art’ (november/december 2009) and ‘Art In America’ (26-10-2010). You’ll find them here and here. There’s a good interview in the December 2010 issue of ‘ArtReview’ too, but you’ll have to register to be able to read it, here.

Adrian Ghenie, SMAK, Ghent (through March 23; info here), Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp (through March 12, info here). You’ll find more images of Ghenie’s paintings at the website of his Romanian gallery ‘Plan B’, here.

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One Response to “An atomic dog in the Dada room: the strange and wonderful paintings of Adrian Ghenie (SMAK)”

  1. philippe leeman Says:

    Het doet mij als voorzitter van de vrienden van het smak veel plezier om de positieve reacties te horen van bezoekers aan de tentoonstelling van de Roemeense kunstenaar Adrian Ghenie en meer bepaald het werk “Dadaroom” dat werd aangekocht door onze vereniging. Ik dank onze leden voor hun engagement en belangrijke steun zodat wij dergelijke aankoop hebben kunnen realiseren.

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