Adrian Ghenie - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Wednesday, June 22, 2022 | Phillips

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  • “I seek images that go straight to your brain, which you can't help but submit to.”
    — Adrian Ghenie


    Commingling comedy and tragedy, dream and reality, Pie Fight Study 4 powerfully embodies the tantalising theatricality that underpins the core of Ghenie’s oeuvre. Hues of auburn, ochre, deep mauve and soft pink are smeared across the canvas, creating gentle contours that are deftly modelled through light and shadow, lending a fleshy plasticity to his work. Capturing the mixture of shock, confusion and surprise at the split‐second when the cream pie hits the man’s concealed and congealed face, the present work showcases Ghenie’s technical prowess as he manipulates the rich impasto with a dynamic sense of energy. Juxtaposing a classically smooth background, the unnamed protagonist’s face is rendered with brisk and abstract strokes, creating a dreamlike aura that is heightened by a ray of gentle flooding light on the left.



    Detail of the current lot


    Conjuring distortions of memories that resemble cinematic vignettes, Ghenie’s portraits are visceral and vulnerable, saturated with historical references that unearth feelings of frustration or desire. Often drawing on human experience and ideas of the collective unconscious, the artist provides a wry and satirical portrait of humanity as a whole, and the dark folds it occasionally reveals.


     Cinematic Consciousness


    “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.”
    — Adrian Ghenie


    Belonging to Adrian Ghenie’s Pie Fight series from 2008‐9, Pie Fight Study 4 coalesces a well‐ known trope from slapstick cinema with a wide‐ranging umbrella of human emotions – including vulnerability, excitement, frustration and desire, encapsulating a filmic quality with suspense, freezing the protagonist mid‐frame. The viewer is propelled into a state of heightened anticipation, eagerly awaiting the next act of the drama; as the artist himself explains: ‘My work is less sociological, and more psychological.’ i




    Film Still from Mulholland Drive (2001), directed by David Lynch



    In Pie Fight Study 4, Ghenie masterfully captures the unnamed man in an allusive ‘in between’ gesture. Stunned into a solitary silence, the protagonist raises his left hand to his brow as if transfixed in time, attempting to wipe the thick, gelatinous custard cream – or rather smeared paint – from his caked face, as if smearing away the very impasto that constitutes his skin, transforming the tragicomic scene into a study of the act of painting.


    Depicting the difficult, ambivalent feelings that must be rushing through the protagonist’s mind in the moment, the artist appropriates tropes from slapstick films which manifests into the characters in his Pie Fight painting series.



     Scene from The Three Stooges ‐ Three Sappy People ‐ Pastry Fight



    Culling imagery from film shorts such as The Three Stooges, Pie Fight Study 4 additionally recalls the movie's comedic scenes, revelling in the arena of cliché whilst simultaneously betraying a sense of idle anarchy. The darkness entailed by Ghenie’s portrayal of ridicule and historic suffering is thus somewhat alleviated by the humorous subject matter he chose; the envelope with which he has decided to deliver his message. Indeed, Pie Fight Study 4 employs contemporary filmic codes that de‐dramatise the heaviness of the image’s connotations, therefore allowing the viewer a short instant of comedic relief. The multi‐layered approach with which Ghenie composes the image verges on the philosophical; in this perspective, Ghenie has said about the series:


    “An image like that is based on the very common human experience of frustration. It's not exclusive to a specific culture or education. If I ask people what they remember about my work, they typically remember this image. I believe that art, especially figurative art, [has] responsibility. If an image is not loaded with symbolic meaning on a Jungian level then it's an empty image.”
    — Adrian Ghenie 


    Erasure of Identity


    The anonymous faces featured in Ghenie’s Pie Fight series contain traces of familiar figures that hide deep within the collective unconsciousness, restless and unsettling. Using key historical figures and moments as structural references, Ghenie conjures a nightmarish mood that finds its foundations in the viewer’s collective reservoir of feelings, thoughts, memories and instinctual anguishes.


    An admirer of Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso, Ghenie has spoken about his fascination in their approaches of identity erasure in their works: ‘In the 20th century, the people who did it really radically were Picasso and Bacon. They took elements of the face and rearranged it. There is no nose, there is no mouth, there is no eye—no sense of anatomy’ ii. Following Picasso’s technique of deconstruction, Ghenie’s Pie Fight Study 4 shares a similar colour palette with Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, achieving a similar visual effect with a more tactile surface on the protagonist’s face. Rich in texture, Ghenie’s works capture a sense of psychological Cubism, conveying a multitude of layered emotions in one frame.



    Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1910
    Collection of the Pushkin Museum, Moskow
    © 2022 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York



    Similar to Ghenie’s psychologically charged works, Bacon’s Self Portrait (1969) exudes a similar sensation of ambivalence and turmoil. Lush strokes of paint are slathered in a vigorous manner with reckless abandon, forming the face of the subject with thick layers of impasto. Bright yellows highlight the composition’s foreground, illuminating the entire painting.



    Francis Bacon, Self‐Portrait, 1969
    © 2022 Estate of Francis Bacon/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London


    While Bacon’s paintings may come from the artist’s own bleak existentialist outlook, Ghenie’s works instead focuses on the sense of collective alienation and angst that was felt by the public in a post WWII era. Both wielding a sense of darkness as a creative force, Bacon and Ghenie capture the viewer’s eye into an inherently enigmatic environment, as the abstract ground against which the unnamed protagonist is set seemingly absorbs him in a chromatic haze.




    Left: Yukimasa Ida, End of today ‐ 12/12 2018 Self Portrait,2018
    Sold by Phillips Hong Kong, 30 July 2021, for HK$693,000

    Right: Tomoo Gokita, Tokyo Shyness Girl, 2015
    Sold by Phillips Hong Kong, 8 July 2020, for HK$2,500,000


    Interestingly, the effacement technique in portraiture is also seen in the works by a younger generation of artists such as Yukimasa Ida and Tomoo Gokita. By visually distorting and obscuring any individuality of his subjects, Gokita opens the identity of the protagonist to interpretation; contrastingly for Ida, the same approach emphasises the transience of life. In both cases, this approach allows only for ruminations on the unseen face itself – allowing the viewer to delve deep into the subconscious, an effect for which Ghenie has become known.



    Collector's Digest


    Born 1977 in the city of Baia Mare, Romania, Adrian Ghenie spent his formative years living under the regime of Romanian dictator Ceaușescu, eventually witnessing the revolution which would culminate in the political leader’s execution, consequently inspiring the visual allusions to historical events that saturates the artist’s oeuvre. Sombre and gritty, his canvases bear gestural, abstract brushstrokes that are exhaustive in their historical references.


    Adrian Ghenie’s recent exhibitions include: We Had Everything Before Us, Galerie Judin, Berlin, 1 May ‐ 10 July 2021; The Hooligans, PACE New York, 20 November 2020 ‐ 11 March 2021; and his major museum solo exhibition at The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, 'I have turned my only face...', 21 November 2019 ‐ 2 February 2020. Ghenie represented Romania at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, and is represented by PACE Gallery, Nicodim and Thaddaeus Ropac.



    i Adrian Ghenie, quoted in Stephen Riolo, ‘Adrian Ghenie, Pie Eater’, Art in America, 26 October 2010, online

    ii Adrian Ghenie, quoted in Andy Battaglia, ‘“Every Painting is Abstract”: Adrian Ghenie on His Recent Work and Evolving Sense of Self’, Artnews, 17 February, 2017, online

    • Provenance

      Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp
      Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2008)
      Christie's, London, 7 March 2018, lot 120
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner


Pie Fight Study 4

signed and dated 'Ghenie 2008' on the reverse
oil on canvas
52 x 52 cm. (20 1/2 x 20 1/2 in.)
Painted in 2008.

Full Cataloguing

HK$3,500,000 - 4,500,000 

Sold for HK$4,032,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 22 June 2022