In one sense or another, all art is political. Some art, of course, is more subtle or more explicit about it than others, but every piece of art comes out of a certain time and historical context and is therefore coded with its own unique politics. The balance to be had, therefore, is between complexity and originality of message as well as, especially, maintaining aesthetic value. In Andreas Gursky’s arresting retrospective that just showed at the Hayward Gallery in London, for instance, the German photographer achieves these balances, pointing his camera towards and arranging his images to underscore contemporary political challenges — everything from the environmental changes wrought by humans (once-green hills speckled with black solar panels) to the creation of nature-like order under capitalism (the perfect proportions and colors of the workers in an Amazon.com shipping warehouse). All the while he keeps the aesthetics of the works closely tied to their politics, perhaps best evidenced by a photographic manipulation of a perfectly symmetrical, many-windowed modern office building that drives home the ways in which architectural and quotidian repetition combine to create an aggregated mundanity.
Adrian Ghenie, the 41-year-old Romanian artist based between Cluj and Berlin, is likewise enraptured by the mixture of aesthetics and politics, believing that you cannot have one without the other. “Can you be apolitical today?” he rhetorically asked Artnews. “Could you be apolitical after the French Revolution? Was Rothko apolitical and Rauschenberg political? Was Goya a political painter? This is a fake concept.”
Ghenie represented Romania at the 2015 Venice Biennale, but just a year before, he’d made his art-market breakout, selling “Sunflowers in 1937,” a canvas painting that imagines Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” with Nazi overtones, at Sotheby’s in London for about $4.5 million, quintupling its estimate. When he sold “Nickelodeon,” which depicts eight blurry figures in coats, the year after for about $9 million at Christie’s in London, the art world started to wonder whether Ghenie’s youthful talent could really match his prices. Some experts speculated that wealthy Asian buyers were pushing prices up; others thought that collectors, spotting a rising talent, were trying to get in on the artist while he was still young.
But what made his art stand out — and what, perhaps, best explains his impressive sales record — was his fresh aesthetic combination of palette knives and stenciling married with a complex, subtle politics. Explorations of historical memory, Eastern European fascism, the difference between truth and remembrance — these have all been a part of his repertoire. It’s no surprise that “Sunflowers in 1937,” which directly investigates this overlap between art and politics, and does so largely through texture, remains one of his most expensive works. He found a sweet spot between art, history, and politics that few Contemporary artists have achieved.
So when, earlier this year, the Thaddeus Ropac Gallery in Paris announced Ghenie’s latest exhibition, “Jungles in Paris,” on view through June 16, as a show that would investigate “the presence of mankind and urbanization that disrupts the wilderness,” there was a mixture of apprehension and optimism.
What could be said that’s original about humans and environmental degradation? How would Ghenie take on this tired idea? The exhibition’s premise sounded banal, but Ghenie’s previous works all point toward a subtle handling of even the most on-the-nose political explorations. Surely, he would find a fresh angle, a clever mixture of ideas.
Unfortunately, any possibility of an inventive or even worthwhile take on human destruction disappears upon walking into the gallery. The exhibition opens with a roomful of paintings that play with his usual color scheme of yellows, greens, browns, and purples to create the colors of the “urban jungle.” Bits of cadmium yellow and vermilion red jump out from the backgrounds of the canvases. Wild animals, carcasses, exotic flora — they’re all nestled in the paintings next to old gas pipes, broken iron fences, desperate slums, and gray smoke.
The works are painfully obvious. Mushrooms that look like nuclear mushroom clouds. Wilting flowers that look like flaccid penises. His heavy, Anselm-Kiefer-like strokes, which usually provide a textural complexity, trafficking in palimpsests and layered connotations, are here rendered meaningless next to the heavy-handed symbolism. In an adjacent room, nine collages combine images “sourced from the Internet” of animal furs, the gills of mushrooms, and decaying fish. Upstairs, a small group of charcoal drawings act as studies for the paintings in the main room.
What is he saying with all of these works? We, as humans, destroy the environment, and we, too, will probably soon be destroyed? O.K. And? That’s the trouble — there’s nothing else. He labors the same, vague point again and again, like a comedian telling different versions of the same joke, and while it’s distantly intriguing the first time, it quickly loses its capacity for fascination.
There are a few positives, of course. His use of “paper texturing,” in which he paints over scraps of paper, takes them away, and, in doing so, creates a look and texture of layering without actual layering adds a sense of technique. So too do the colors he finds — the utter darkness of his canvases, the bright grays of the rotting carcasses. But any viewer who knows Ghenie’s earlier works and walks in with an implicit trust that he will find a subversive angle on the subject will be ultimately disappointed.
Stepping back, perhaps it’s unfair to hold Ghenie to such a high standard, to expect shining originality on every canvas. But, then again, he’s delivered it before. It was what led to the cult of his youthful celebrity. In fact, it was only two years ago that the president of the Pace Gallery, Marc Glimcher, told the New York Times that Ghenie’s works were so popular that “134 people think they’re first in line” to buy his work. Even the gallerist behind the current exhibition — Thaddaeus Ropac — wanted Ghenie’s market to come down, just two years ago, saying, “The market is overreacting. We would be happy if everything were strong but not crazy.”
But perhaps they now regret their excitement. If Ghenie continues in the vein of this latest exhibition, Ropac’s wishes will come alarmingly true.
“Jungles in Paris” is on view through June 16 at the Thaddeus Ropac Gallery in Paris. More information: www.ropac.net
Click on the slide show for a sample of the exhibition.
Founder Louise Blouin