These days, no one actually believes that old saw about painting being dead, but looking at the work of Adrian Ghenie, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s true.
The Berlin-based artist’s approach generally involves bringing kitschy painterly flourishes to bear on moody figurative scenes, resulting in incoherent compositions that are heavy on melodrama when they are not completely lifeless. Think Neo Rauch dressed up with flashy bits of abstraction cribbed from Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon (which perhaps explains their appeal to deep-pocketed collectors).
Ghenie represented his native Romania with a portentous exhibition at the 56th Venice Biennale, in 2015, and he’s back in the city again this year with a small solo show of recent work at the Palazzo Cini, “The Battle Between Carnival and Feast,” which runs through November 18.
One room holds three small renderings of President Donald Trump—his bright hair floating above a face that Ghenie has smeared and deformed with his typical moves. In another are two self-portraits, one with the artist (again, face blurred away) donning a red New York Yankees cap as he checks his phone against a patchy blue background. As with so much work here, these paintings feel strangely unfinished—assembled gimmicks that don’t add up.
Ghenie is best when working at modest size. When he goes big, he has too much room to showboat and the compositions really go off the rails. In The Raft (2019), a big statement piece, fleshy legs that vaguely recall the colors of Chaim Soutine emerge from a morass of textures and seem to walk on a dark patch of water below. Oddly decorative, it is something less than the most insightful, or incisive, response to the contemporary migration crisis.
On the plus side, this is Venice, and so two charming Tiepolo portraits hang just outside the room, ready to cleanse the palate.