Albert Oehlen studied in Hamburg with Sigmar Polke, played a central role in a prodigious group of artists who came to the fore in the ’80s, and was associated with various movements and groups—some apt, some gratuitous. I would describe him with that popular health-food term free radical. Today, the German-born Oehlen lives and works in Berlin, Switzerland, and Spain. He is a master of ironic wit and his paintings are elaborate strategies of provocation. Often he subverts the authority of the avant-garde, creating an abstraction of dumbed-down abjection. His painting poses as a deceptive icon of aesthetic contemplation, punctuated with flirtatious eyes returning the viewer’s gaze.
Albert Oehlen, Descending hot rays, 2003, Oil on Canvas, 280 x 300cm, Courtesy of Saatchi Gallery
Oehlen’s paintings are neither beautiful nor seductive. Their self-consciously brutal surfaces seem to be corrupted from within, a perversion of the paintings they might have been. In Descending Hot Rays, Albert Oehlen’s monotone canvas occupies a space between representation and abstraction, his forms and textures converging not to create an illusion, but a suggestion of invention. Traditional painterly expression is infused with a steely reference to technology. His work offers a raw confrontation with the deficiencies of visual language. Albert Oehlen doesn’t use paint to convey meaning, but rather to explore the possibilities of the medium’s ‘function’.
Albert Oehlen, DJ Techno, 2001, Mixed media on canvas, 360 x 340cm, Courtesy of Saatchi Gallery
Oehlen re-contextualises painting as an expanded field. His most recent works are often produced through computer-generated design, incorporating collaged elements of photography and ink-jet printing as a means to explore new territories of representation and reception. DJ Techno combines pop emblems with Kandinsky-like expressionism to create an image with synaesthetic effect, alluding to sensations other than the visual.
Albert Oehlen, Painting from the Zabludowicz Collection: Part I, Installation View, Albert Oehlen, Untitled (1982), Courtesy Zabludowicz Collection, Photo: Tim Bowditch
Recently Oehlen made an impressive exhibition at Gagosian on Madison Avenue of paintings that consisted of beautifully delicate, effervescent veils of paint floating upon the over-sized graphics of German billboard advertising. Since the late Eighties he’s used printed grounds, from advertising, the internet or computer-graphic doodles, so as to see his own gestures against spectacularised equivalents. He’s even made giant collages of uncanny found images, combining the medium of collage with that of painting. Collage as a form grew within modernism through Picasso, Schwitters, Rauschenberg and Polke but was often repressed through a notion of minimal purity and truth to materials. In Oehlen, collage seems like an inevitability, the true condition of art in a Postmodern age.
Albert Oehlen, Deathoknocko, 2001, Courtesy Zabludowicz Collection, the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York, USA
In 2013 ArtDaily described Oehlen as “one of the most influential, but also one of the most controversial of contemporary painters”. However his work has not been met with universal approval. Philippe Dagen, writing in Le Monde about Oehlen’s 2011 exhibition in Nîmes, concluded that he was “of only limited importance. With about 30 canvases he reveals his system with absolute, but unfortunately appalling, clarity. “His paintings were devoid of “any form of expression or psychic density”
The 58-year-old painter instance Albert Oehlen, who commutes between Dusseldorf, Spain and Switzerland, arranged a very original show in the gallery Sprueth Magers in Berlin., For which he needed an omniscient art historian, not even a powerful exhibition experts. He gathered all their own discretion, paintings and also some from the two-dimensional image objects clearly grown out of only four colleagues from those years.
Oehlen, who himself always had a more conceptual approach to painting, decided in his selection for the American Richard Artschwager, born in 1923, and Ashley Bickerton, born in 1959, the British Malcolm Morley, born in 1931, and the Cologne Andreas Schulze. He leaves only a very few, but striking positions of the western, even overseas eighties resurrected as rollercoaster of styles between neo-expressive, figurative painting and concept art positions.
– Albert Oehlen Malerei (Paintings) at MUMOK, Vienna, up to October 12, 2013