October 21, 2016 – February 5, 2017
Albert Oehlen (b. Krefeld, Germany, 1954) is one of the most influential painters of the past few decades and one of the most controversial artists in post-war Germany. His painting style, which is unmistakably contemporary, draws from a blend of techniques rooted in advertising, the expressionist brushstroke, surrealist gesture, and computer-generated images. Oehlen is a conceptual artist who uses painting as a medium, and whose work—specifically his paintings—has contributed to the debate on the death of painting which has emerged every so often since the mid-20th century. Regarding the interpretation of his works, he states: “Think whatever you like. It is boring to talk about meaning. I’m not looking for the public’s connection or understanding. They are all free to feel.” Over the past few years, his paintings have developed what he defines as his main topic: artistic freedom. This is made patent in his bravery and abandon when facing the canvas, using new techniques that maintain the vocabulary from the past, yet awaken a strange, paradoxical sensation that this is something new, yet familiar.
This exhibition, made up of three series, two self-portraits, and a newly-created collage-painting, does not aim to be a retrospective exercise, but rather an artistic statement. The first series is abstract and dates back to the eighties; the second is made up of computer works from the nineties; and the third, begun in 1989 and still underway, deals with trees. The exhibition explores “to which extent we are able to see behind the image.” Although the paintings selected for this show are formally different at first glance, the three series bear a common core that associates and connects them. With Oehlen the image dissolves into irony and innuendo. Superficially dilettante gesture, or “bad painting,” shatters these ideals of classical panel painting radically and enduringly. This painterly openness is also reflected on a thematic level.
Throughout his career, Albert Oehlen made a series of self-portraits where his very image acts as a starting point for reflection on the meaning of the artist’s art and identity.
With these works, the painter attempts to reach a balance between figuration and abstraction to question, through a classic genre, standards of the artistic practice and traditional cultural, aesthetic, and artistic imperatives.
In these self-portraits, the subject is not the most relevant aspect; rather, the theme becomes a means that allows the artist to express his ideas. Normally, Oehlen’s portraits are images made with a reduced color selection—with brown, ochre, and grey tones predominating—and are painted with a direct, gestural style, use a deliberately “anti-masterful” technique.
With Self-Portrait as Spring (Selbst als Frühling), 2006, Oehlen reinterprets a traditional pictorial theme, the celebration of spring and life, showing an idyllic scene where appearances are deceiving. A masculine character regards us, representing the painter himself, who replaces the god Bacchus; but he is not depicted as a joyful god, celebrating a happy moment. Rather, he has a mournful appearance. Oehlen occupies the place of the god, introducing himself as a creator—creator of the painting, but also as a destructor of the traditional meaning. The artist adds elements of life today, replacing wine with a bottle of beer and the grapevine grown with a white muscle shirt.
Oehlen uses his self-portraits as a tool to criticize the widespread belief that the painter is a sort of God. As such, he shows himself to be an artist who holds no control over himself or his work once it has left the studio.
"I am not interested in chaos but in uncontrolled order."
In 1992, Oehlen began making computer-designed paintings, known for their pixilation and low resolution. Despite their limitations, the technical potential of computers created a series of rules and patterns with which the artist could improvise. Basic digital drawing programs provide for a new method of abstraction. Oehlen focused his interest on patterns created by movements made by the hand with the computer mouse, to continue showing the expressive and personal gesture.
Demonstrating his irony and spontaneity, the artist defines these paintings as "bionic," although in reality their appearance is more primitive than futuristic. Using slang from the digital world, these images suffer from a “data overload.” The exclusive use of black in these works might be interpreted as one of the challenges the artist poses for himself.
These drawings arose as a series of motifs made with a laptop that were later enlarged and printed on a canvas. They were created with a blend of different techniques, such as computer printing, silk-screen printing, and brush painting. Although this fusion of different techniques is common today, Oehlen was a true pioneer in the 90s when he adapted the complex technological resources existing at the time to create this technique, taken over by painters of the digital age.
Albert Oehlen’s abstract paintings actually straddle between figuration and abstraction, and are recognizable by how the artist impetuously and exaltedly uses color, and by the brushstroke’s personal and daring gesture. Oehlen began painting abstract pictures in 1988, when he moved to Andalusia along with artist Martin Kippenberger. Regarding this shift in his style, Oehlen has stated: "In a way it was because I thought that art history went from figuration to abstraction. And I should do the same. I should have the same development in my life as art history."
These paintings, made with the oil technique, the most traditional pictorial method, transmit a feeling of carelessness, as if the artist were hiding his true technical skill by using bright-colored fillers. They do not heed to any conventional beauty norm of established standard.
Oehlen’s abstract pictures are neither beautiful nor attractive. In his statements made regarding his own work, the artist’s sarcasm is blatant: "When you work on a painting for a month, you spend 30 days standing in front of the world's ugliest picture. In my work, I'm constantly surrounded by the most dreadful pictures. It’s true. What I see are unbearably ugly tatters, which are then transformed at the last moment, as if by magic, into something beautiful."
In 1989, Oehlen decided to become an abstract painter and began using a tree motif as the theme of his painting. In the same way that Piet Mondrian had investigated dissolution of the figurative shape based on a tree, Oehlen uses this resource “as vehicles for a methodical deflation of content.”
The images in this series have schematic shapes that are tree-like in appearance and black in color: the trunks and branches become silhouettes, similar to Oehlen’s computer drawings, yet meticulously painted by hand with brush and oil paint. According to the author: “When you place those black lines against a magenta background, something alarming happens. Magenta is a hysterical color, somehow. To me, they look like psychopathic trees—psychopathic human trees.”
The chaotic, disorganized structure of the tree branches allows the artist to begin creating a work without knowing where his brushstrokes will bring him. Starting at the center, each branch is a reaction to a prior element, so nothing is established beforehand, only the colors that Oehlen is going to use.
These pictures were painted on a polyethylene-coated aluminum sheet, materials that make them look like advertising billboards. The painter refers to them thus: “I like the stiffness. It has this modern technological feel to it, and it’s actually much easier to paint on than canvas. I wasn’t looking for another surface, I just tried it one day and liked it.” These accidental changes are typical for Oehlen, and are guided by instinct, but are also the result of calculation.