LONDON — Fame is a kind of soup, Adrian Ghenie has said. The remark brings to mind the primeval soup from which humanity is often said to have emerged, formlessness slowly becoming form. But what kind of form? And how upright and stable will that form prove to be when it does emerge? Half of Ghenie’s first London exhibition in almost a decade, The Fear of NOW at Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, consists of six painted images of Marilyn’s head (no surname needed), all in a row, as if in a shockingly quick-fire cinematic sequence, along a single wall, together with various preparatory drawings.
Each painting is a response to a single print by Warhol, made in 1964. The paintings seem to flash back at viewers alarmingly, as if you are witnessing the effects upon her skin, bone, and very soul of ravening photographers who have hunted her down and surrounded her, and are snapping her over and over and over. Ghenie has often interrogated and broken down familiar images of people such as Lenin, Darwin, and Trump (Trump, on view at the Palazzo Cini in 2018, needed nothing but a wild head-slick of orange).
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These paintings are a relentless representation of a howling, turbulent tragedy, a face broken into crude sideways slewings and gougings and gorgings of paint. It is relentlessly, cruelly forensic, the way Ghenie has scooped and reassembled the angles of her fragile face, topped by its wild scaffolding of impossibly blond hair. The whole humanity of her head is brutally reduced to a kind of crazed, rackety configuration of parts that scarcely cohere at all. Lips are wrenched awry. The mouth is a fiery red hole. It goes too far. Of course it does. Others urged her to go too far to make her their perpetual dream of bodily perfection, to greedily drink her to the dregs. Ghenie seems to see through and into the crudity of this treatment. How to otherwise retain that semblance of timeless allure?
The second sequence of paintings and preparatory drawings invites us to consider the baleful effect of social media upon our world. Ghenie tells us that he has no social media presence at all. It destroys the shape of the body and shrivels the hand — see how this painter in his studio, bent over a tiny screen, is hunched like an old crone, in thrall to the comic-book rays that pulsate out from the devices that he holds in his hand, that sit on his table, that hang from his wall. There is no escape. These paintings are not Ghenie at his best. His characteristic luxuriance of color is missing. Their execution feels a little too premeditated, as if he has had an idea, and pursued it over too many canvases. The relative failure of this body of work puts you in mind of the problem of much bad political poetry — it declines into crude sloganeering because the writer knows what he has to say even before he says it.
Adrian Ghenie: The Fear of NOW continues at Thaddaeus Ropac (37 Dover Street, London, England) through December 22. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.