Adrian Ghenie - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, February 12, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Adrian Ghenie, 'Pie Fight Study 4', Lot 29

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 13 February

  • 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

  • Catalogue Essay

    In Pie Fight Study 4, 2008, an unnamed man attempts to brush off the remains of a cream pie freshly slathered across his face. In his allusive gesture, betraying the ‘after’ of a very clear ‘before’, the man appears as though he is smearing away the paint that designs his face; transforming the tragicomic scene into a study of the act of painting. Belonging to Adrian Ghenie’s Pie Fight works 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. ‘My work is less sociological, and more psychological’, the artist has said. ‘I seek images that go straight to your brain, which you can't help but submit to’ (Adrian Ghenie, quoted in Stephen Riolo, ‘Adrian Ghenie, Pie Eater’, Art in America, 26 October 2010, online). Realising this effect with great virtuoso, the present image captures the visual and emotional ambivalence for which Ghenie has become known, later deployed in analogous series revealing blurred visions of infamous historical figures. The artist’s characters – known or anonymous – systematically appear in haunting interiors, both dreamlike and cinematic, and are achieved with a classical inflection that recalls the great masters of the Baroque era. They linger in a place unknown and yet distinctly familiar – somewhere between the ludicrous settings of American vaudevilles, the dimly-lit stages of films noirs, and the inconceivable chiaroscuro envisioned within Old Masters paintings. In the present work, Ghenie casts the viewer’s eye into an inherently enigmatic environment, as the abstract ground against which the unnamed protagonist is set seemingly absorbs him in an impastoed chromatic haze.

    Born 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. Extremism, totalitarianism and overall 20th century political turbulence saturate the artist’s oeuvre while visual allusions to historical events preoccupy his diverse body of work. From Elvis Presley to Charles Darwin, Vincent Van Gogh to key figures of National Socialism, Ghenie’s multi-layered canvases coerce and coax the viewer to address collective and, conversely, private memory, to provide a collaged reading of his work. Using key historical figures and moments as structural columns to suspend his claustrophobic microcosms, Ghenie’s imagery is exhaustive in its references. The artist asserts ‘I’m not a history painter, but I am fascinated by what happened in the 20th century and how it continues to shape today. I don’t feel any obligation to tell this to the world, but for me the 20th century was a century of humiliation – and through my painting, I’m still trying to understand this’ (Adrian Ghenie, quoted in Jane Neal, ‘Referencing slapstick cinema, art history and the annals of totalitarianism, Adrian Ghenie’s paintings find ways of confronting a century of humiliation’, Art Review, December 2010, online).

    Largely preoccupied with the notion of evil – or more precisely, how the possibility for evil is found in every endeavour – Ghenie also approached closely twined subject matters spanning solitude, silence, violence and humiliation. Notably, his Pie Fight series does not so much address the trauma of 20th century history as it does the deep childhood fears that linger within all of us; in the present work, these are embodied by the anonymous man who has suffered arbitrary ridicule and brutalisation in the public eye. In this perspective, Ghenie conjures a nightmarish mood that finds its foundations in the viewer’s collective reservoir of feelings, thoughts, memories and instinctual anguishes. ‘We inevitably live in a post-WWII epoch’, Ghenie explains, ‘which means that we constantly have to look back to that watershed moment in order to understand our present condition’ (Adrian Ghenie, quoted in Magda Radu, ‘Adrian Ghenie: Rise & Fall,’ Flash Art, December 2009, p. 49). Looking at the consequence of an external aggression, Pie Fight Study 4 allegorically encapsulates Ghenie’s statement that our post-World War II condition innately shapes our visions of violence, and the necessity to locate what spurred the feelings of the ‘after’. Indeed, the viewer does not know what initiated the food-thrust; they simply are aware of its result, which in many ways echoes the incertitude with which citizens retrospectively tackle the banal evils of history. The result is there – right in our faces – and we are left to reflect upon its cause.

    Culling imagery from films 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, quoted in Stephen Riolo, ‘Adrian Ghenie, Pie Eater’, Art in America, 26 October 2010, online).

    Mixing painterly prowess and a continuous cinematic consciousness, Pie Fight Study 4 powerfully embodies the scintillating spark that constitutes the core of Ghenie’s oeuvre. Depicting the difficult, ambivalent feelings that rush through the victim’s body following an attack, the composition constructs a portrait of humanity as a whole, and the dark folds it occasionally reveals.


Pie Fight Study 4

signed and dated 'Ghenie 2008' on the reverse
oil on canvas
53 x 52 cm (20 7/8 x 20 1/2 in.)
Painted in 2008.

£350,000 - 450,000 

Contact Specialist

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
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Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 February 2020