Adrian Ghenie channels art history’s ‘Hooligans’ at Pace Gallery

“The Hooligans,” Adrian Ghenie’s fourth solo exhibition with Pace Gallery, brings together nine paintings and three drawings all made during the last year. Influenced by Impressionist painters, as well as J.M.W. Turner, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, this new body of work continues Ghenie’s exploration of abstracting figures, layering shapes and using gestural painting techniques to create complex images intertwined with art historical narratives. 

Ghenie’s meditation on the idea of “hooliganism” examines the crucial role of rebellion in an artist’s process, working to reject or ignore traditionalism to create the new.

Since the mid-2000s, Ghenie (b. 1977, Baia Mare, Romania) has created drawings, collages and paintings that mine the history of art as well as the darkest chapters of Europe’s past, notably World War II and the subsequent rise of Communism, including in his native Romania. Somber and gritty, his canvases bear gestural, abstract brushstrokes that build as much as mar their representational contents.

Beginning in 2014, the artist began to work from assembled images. In recent years, his focus shifted to an exploration of revolutionary figures from the late 19th century such as Van Gogh and Charles Darwin, using them as points of departure more than inspiration. Ghenie’s visceral, even iconoclastic, impasto conjures distortions of memory, as well as fraught experiences that exceed and collide with official accounts of history.

Primarily portraits of nineteenth-century artists, the works on view in “The Hooligans” suggest a genealogy that begins with Turner, runs through the Impressionists, and ends with Post-Impressionist figures, such as Van Gogh and Gauguin. Quiet disruptors, these painters affirmed the materiality of oil paints with their loose brushstrokes, while amplifying painting’s optical qualities, namely its immersive luminosity and chromatic richness. Radicals in their time, their work unsettled the Romantic period, reflecting changes to modern vision as both bodily and subjective – a phenomenon that the nineteenth century’s new optical instruments and scientific experiments had already put underway.

Ghenie, whose past work has explored the relationship between painting and cinema, continues to mine art’s ever-evolving relationship to history, vision and technology, as suggested by the presence of  anachronistic details, such as sneakers and baseball caps, VR goggles and security cameras, that interrupt broad sections drawn from familiar nineteenth century paintings.

Meditating on the idea of hooliganism in art, Ghenie has shared the following statement about this new body of work:

“When one stays for long hours in a studio year after year—besides doubting everything—you start to ask yourself what you are looking at when you look at paintings from the past. In time you develop a habit for peeling them like onions. Twenty years ago, I saw the surface, the skill, the prettiness. Now I see the energy behind this, the violence.

When I look at the Impressionists, I have the strange feeling that I am looking at something very schizophrenic. Behind those harmless colorful landscapes there is an incredible, destructive force; camouflaged. It is an act of hooliganism. It’s hard to ask someone to see that Claude Monet’s ‘Impression, soleil levant’ from 1872 is not a sweet sea landscape with a sun rising, but a bomb so powerful that it could put the Greek Roman canon to rest for good.”

This exhibition comes on the heels of two major solo museum exhibitions at The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia; and Palazzo Cini, Venice, Italy in 2019.

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