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The Raft of Medusa: An exhibition of works by Wolfe von Lenkiewicz opens at All Visual Arts
Wolfe von Lenkiewicz, The Journey’s End, 2013, Oil on canvas, 600 × 887 cm.

LONDON.- All Visual Arts announces “The Raft of Medusa”, an exhibition by Wolfe von Lenkiewicz running 19 September – 2 November 2013. This new body of work builds on the artist’s previous coalescences of disparate imagery: from contemporary to historic, high art of the Renaissance to icons of popular culture.

Among reworkings of iconic images, from Michelangelo, Ingres and Cezanne to Warhol and even Disney, past works most remarkable in demonstrating Lenkiewicz’s practice include But, but I am a Legend (2010), a full-scale revisiting – or, rather, reconfiguration – of Picasso’s Guernica (1937). The artist’s most recent body of works, inspired by early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch, similarly transformed The Garden of Earthly Delights (ca.1490) into a ‘posthistoric’, trans-cultural manuscript. While appearing on first glance as faithful reproductions, revealed in each case are works densely populated with disparate imagery – destabilising any sense of narrative and questioning notions of authorship.

“The Raft of Medusa” continues to stretch these ideas. However, while previously Lenkiewicz has driven contextual imagery together from disparate time periods and geographies, in this exhibition the scope is deliberately narrowed. Flattening history, the result perceived through the lens of the present becomes a historical deconstruction; challenging our notions of past and present, the work moves outside of history.

Driving his practice further still, Lenkiewicz reduces the number of images combined, in many cases to a single dramatic pairing. His point of entry in this case is Géricault and the nineteenth century. ‘Re-sequencing’ history through the existing visual language of his images, the artist engages in the elaborate project of creating a new visual syntax – and, here, in scale as never before.

In The Journey’s End – the show’s monumental centrepiece standing six metres in height and almost nine in width – the power of Lenkiewicz’s process is most evident through sheer magnitude, but the resonance between art and science is present throughout his work. By breaking down the barriers between conventional and discrete groupings – both chronological and categorical – Lenkiewicz radically disrupts the linear historical timeframe, generating new meaning and a new visual language, through a startling form of hybrid.

Lenkiewicz’s colossal work takes as its fundamental source the nineteenth century Romantic icon The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819), by French painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault. However, this is no straightforward copy, instead transforming the overall meaning of the work through a radical displacement of environment and context. Survivors at peril in open sea shift in Lenkiewicz’s composition to the locus of an arctic polar wasteland, assimilating with the Caspar David Friedrich landscape, The Sea of Ice (1823-1824).

Layering one disaster scene upon another – and presenting the saga in such dramatically cinematic scale – creates in effect an immense mise en scene. The overarching theme of the two works is maintained – that is, that of man and nature in conflict; and that both present the aftermath of a shipwreck provides a fitting metaphor for the cataclysmic aesthetic at the very heart of Lenkiewicz’s ‘post-historic’ practice. That The Journey’s End will be painted in San Lorenzo, Rome – the city in which Géricault himself painted his Barbary horses – further underlines the non linear aspects of history pervading this entire body of work.

Questions of why an artist would wish to make work so closely based on the paintings of previous artists would be based on a falsehood: the mythology of originality. Every great painting in the history of Western art emerges from previous works by previous artists – the young Géricault, as just one topical example, took Pierre-Paul Prud’hon’s Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime as the basis of his own naked, sprawled corpse in the foreground of The Raft.

In Man Proposes God Disposes Lenkiewicz conflates Edwin Henry Landseer’s eponymous painting of 1864 with an icescape from Frederic Church’s The Icebergs (1861), with the addition of a corpse from The Raft. While Church’s work presents no living being and instead evokes the glories of the pristine environment as God’s temple, Landseer’s, made just two years later, presents the grimly materialistic potential for equating man and beast. By referencing this nineteenth century shift in notions of the sublime, Lenkiewicz once again crafts a non linear history, and in creating this amalgam warps the normal rules of narrative structure.

Similarly in Fearful Symmetry, tigers, lions and leopards from Landseer’s Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals (1839) have invaded the raft, replacing human presence. These seamless orchestrations create new worlds of meaning, new insights into the human condition, and revelations which could only occur when two or more paintings are synthesised into a single vision.

Alongside these epic and cinematic works, the exhibition will demonstrate the artist’s ‘posthistoric’ practice through portrait and still life paintings. Lenkiewicz’s reappraisal of Géricault’s “Portraits of the Insane” combines disparate elements of the original portraits with other sources. What at first appear to be straightforward Old Master portraits are in fact subtle collages of different works. In ‘Monomania’: Identity Amnesia a patient suffering the delusion of being Napoleon has his delusion confirmed with the addition of a suitable hat from another painting. The process is more nuanced than just grafting a head onto a different body; in Religious Melancholia and Convalescence a man wears a woman’s hat, and the face is a combination of a man and a woman from different paintings. Lenkiewicz takes features and postures from the original works and creates a new series of portraits showing different nuances of madness, subtlety underlining once again an ontological distortion, this time founded upon notions of scientific developments in psychiatry.

In a series of reconfigured still lifes, Lenkiewicz conflates Géricault’s gruesome Study of feet and Hands (1818–1819) with elements from several still lifes by Chardin. The result is a scene in which startled cats step over severed limbs, arranged amidst piles of game. The artist makes explicit the implied ‘deathliness’ of the ‘vanitas’ still life – and furthermore the ‘memento mori’ reminds us of the transience of human life. In Still Life (Peaches and Guillotined Head) the theme is taken to an extreme with Roland de la Porte’s delicately rendered Still Life (c 1765) of peaches, along with elements from Chardin, sharing a table with a severed head – and the shock of the juxtaposition is palpable.

Throughout this body of work, Wolfe von Lenkiewicz proves himself as an artist not only proficient in the skills and understandings of a painter, but also one who in his practice embraces history – or the scope to challenge it – alongside those more cerebral notions of mysticism, philosophy and theology. By bringing together disparate elements into one, notions of the modern and the postmodern and conjured, and from the power of the idea is born new language, narrative and meaning.

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