Case in point: Adrian Ghenie. He's a Romanian born, Berlin based artist, and one of the founders of the Paintbrush Factory in Cluj. Interesting choice of name given that much of Ghenie's own spectacular painterly effect is achieved not with a paintbrush, but with a palette knife and stencils.
Beyond the central group pavilions there is not a lot of painting on offer at this year's biennale.
Perhaps it's just not in vogue these days.
To compete in these kinds of arenas artists need to be less conventional and more willing to embrace contemporary media. Then of course many curators feel that Giardini and Arsinale's huge exhibition spaces in particular demand something three dimensional in order to combat the cavernous spaces.
But, with Darwin's Room, Ghenie, with curator Mihai Pop's help, unexpectedly overcomes the high ceilings of Romania's pavilion through the dual subtlety and force of Ghenie's work and the strong premise of his idea.
Like other artists at the biennale, Ghenie looks back to look forward, wading through the loaded nature of our history and at the evolution, not so much of the species, but rather, of ideas. What ideas live on at the expense of others? Who are they propagated by and how do they flourish?
Like Fiona Hall in the Australian pavilion, Ghenie offers up small and large scale works that are nuanced and that will have you marveling at the textures he's been able to achieve without sacrificing the overall effect. At times his painting seems as if it has been screen printed, but then, sudden unexpected areas of texture appear, lending height and depth to the works and placing an obstacle between subject and viewer. After all, this is a show about the subconscious nature of people, not cold, hard fact, and therefore, there is baggage that comes with.
The running theme of Charles Darwin portraits, some of which are part self portraits juxtaposed on top, line the walls alongside (self) portraits of van Gogh and Duchamp and of Lenin and Hitler, each obscured by Ghenie's layering technique. Ghenie's canvases are chunky counterpoints to the deceptively flat and straightforward propaganda images of some of these figures that fill the collective consciousness. Iconic images that all but airbrushed away their subjects' imperfections and sinister sides to allow us to neatly nestle them into our memories.
Elsewhere Ghenie incorporates motifs from the natural world, in part to honour his muse, and in part to represent our more primal fears and nature as people. These motifs draw us in, but not by way of curiosity. They are uncomfortable and jarring scenarios that drag us in despite ourselves. Ghenie seems to be suggesting that we are still more like our ancestral kin than the technologically savvy, evolved versions of our ancestors that we claim to be.
Darwin's Room is a rare breed of conceptual art being paired successfully with flawless technique. Props too to he exhibition catalogue and Mihai Pop's curation. Just a classy effort all around.