Renowned for his portraits of history’s villains and foreboding psychological scenes pointing to past collective traumas, the Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie had something of a revelation during the Covid pandemic, which prompted a shift in his subject matter and practice. While visiting churches in Italy, he was struck by the way the human posture has changed: whereas in Baroque paintings the gaze of the figures was directed heavenward, out on the street he noticed everyone looking down, hunched over their phones. “We have a new body language because of digital technology, all these new gestures that inhabit our lives 24 hours a day,” Ghenie told ARTnews at Thaddeus Ropac in London ahead of the opening of a major show of new paintings and drawings there.
Titled “The Fear of NOW” and running October 12 to December 22, the exhibition explores the physical and social impact of digital technology and online culture in two series of contorted portraits: of the human figure and of Marilyn Monroe, based on Andy Warhol’s iconic screen prints of the actress. Amalgamating references to Old Masters and today’s digital consumer culture, Ghenie gives a contemporary twist to the conventions of sacred art. His painting The Conversion (2022), for instance,depicts a monstrous figure seated in a white plastic chair in front of a laptop that seems to explode, radiating beams, dust, and clouds. Riffing off the dramaticiconography of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, it’s a parodic reference to the “constant state of revelation we have when we go online,” according to the artist.
In this new body of work, Ghenie’s figures are nearly all bowed over, connected to a laptop or phone by lines resembling rays or some sort of sci-fi goop, as if they are in communion. “When you see people, especially in the evening, looking at a shiny object that generates this blue light, there’s almost something mystical,” Ghenie said. “I can’t help myself from associating that with classical Baroque paintings where you have a saint pierced by this beam of light.”
Another work, The App (2022), shows two figures facing each other in what looks like a moment of intimacy. A third figure on a phone, however, intrudes on their privacy. For Ghenie this encapsulates the way we constantly call up images on our devices so that there is always another, digital, presence intervening in our real-life exchanges. We’re never truly alone anymore, he seems to say.
The artist has a conflicted relationship with technology in general, verging on the phobic, by his own admission. It runs in the male line of his family, he said. His father always refused to speak on the phone, while his 58-year-old brother has never used email. “In the ’90s when I was a student, everyone knew if you called me on the phone, my mother was instructed to say, ‘He’s not at home,’” Ghenie recalled. He shuns social media—although a fan page, which someone set up without his knowing on Instagram under @Adrian.Ghenie, has 30K followers—and he makes no attempt to correct inaccurate posts. “I don’t want to interfere with the forming of this creature. And this creature looks like that,” he said, pointing to one of his paintings on the wall. So the “Fear” of the exhibition’s title is his very much his own. “I realize I might have an allergy or a phobia to the very thing that bites everyone today,” he said.
Several works titled Impossible Bodies feature elephantine heads and deformed physiques which sprout wormlike protuberances and multiple body parts in random places. These works start with a self-portrait taken on Ghenie’s laptop and then build out from there, accumulating motion and outlandish forms far removed from accurate anatomical depictions. The artist cited Picasso, Giacometti, and Baconas his forbears in the breaking down and reconstruction of the human form. However, the cartoonish grotesqueness of these latest figures marks something of a departure for Ghenie.
The change came about during the pandemic, he explained, when he was isolated in his studio. Having previously employed collage in preparation for his paintings, he began drawing instead as a sort of rehearsal and found an unexpected freedom in the medium. “Somehow I discovered a need which I did not know before,” he said, “a tendency toward the grotesque and caricature and I said, ‘That’s funny—don’t censor yourself.’”
This sense of liberation is mirrored in his sources of inspiration, which increasingly derive not from other artists but from cartoons and science fiction, of which he has always been a huge fan. The irreverent animated sci-fi series Rick and Morty is a particular favorite. “In Rick and Morty, what is a wrong body? There’s no such thing. If you want to have 500 legs you will have 500 legs,” he said.
Ghenie has applied this same freedom to his portraits of Marilyn Monroe. Coincidentally, these works came about through another mini epiphany. Having watched The Andy Warhol Diaries on Netflix, the artist happened to visit Christie’s website since he had a work on sale with the auction house. (That work was 2014’s Pie Fight Interior 12, which in May set his auction record of $10.3 million.) On the house’s website, he encountered an installation photograph of Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn and was transfixed, despite never having had any interest in the Pop artist previously.
“Suddenly I had this Marilyn-Warhol explosion into my life,” he said. He was shocked by the almost religious power of the image: “It is glowing. It’s almost like it’s a small miracle and you just want to look at it.”
Ghenie felt compelled to incorporate Warhol’s Marilyn into his practice. Retaining only the actress’s blond hair, lips, and one eye in place, he deconstructed Warhol’s smooth image, giving the star the Rick and Morty treatment, so that the end result is almost an alien version with misplaced features and tubular organic forms growing from her head. The portraits somehow evoke Monroe’s vulnerability and even ugliness behind the celebrity mask, although Ghenie’s fascination is not with Monroe the person but her image and the way she has been kept alive online.
For someone with a phobia of modern technology, Ghenie thrillingly juxtaposes traditional materials such as paint on canvas with uber contemporary references to the latest devices, tapping into the essence of our digitized existence today.