Energy and Indifference: The Art of Albert Oehlen

Oehlen #1

Albert Oehlen, Born To Be Late (2001), inkjet print and mixed-media on canvas; Collection of Carla and Fred Sands, Los Angeles, CA

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The following review originally appeared in the June 7, 2004 edition of The New York Observer. It is posted here on the occasion of “Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden”, an exhibition currently at The New Museum.

There’s a lot to distrust about the paintings of Albert Oehlen, not least their venue. With rare exceptions–the photographs of Joel Sternfeld, say–Chelsea’s Luhring Augustine has dedicated itself to the glitzy verities of corporate nihilism and a worldview that’s loathe to admit the complexities of art lest they get in the way of a good, or rather a bad, time. Mr. Oehlen’s canvases fit in the with the gallery’s chilly anti-humanism.

Certainly, any artist touted as a founder of Germany’s “bad painting movement” is likely to have reservations about his chosen art form. Mr. Oehlen’s pictures are big, jumbled repositories of photo-based images: intestines, cheesecake pin-ups, a fuse box, a ladle, the Star of David and–I’m not kidding–the kitchen sink. Yet he isn’t a representational artist. The pictures are, for all intents and purposes, abstract.

The images provide an armature for painterly flourishes–or, to be exact, painterly defacement. Negation is Mr. Oehlen’s M.O. Alternately hasty, lethargic and careless, each painting is a Pop-inflected parody of the conventions of Abstract Expressionism. Like his peers, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, Mr. Oehlen spends a lot of energy proving his indifference; painting, that dead and silly thing, isn’t worth bothering with. That’s the pose, anyway. Oehlen #2

Albert Oehlen, Party Dreams (2001), inkjet print and mixed media on canvas; courtesy Cristin Tierney Gallery

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Yet Mr. Oehlen can’t be dismissed as a Conceptual artist in painter’s drag. Stay with the canvases and you’ll see what I mean. Each composition is rigorously accounted for, its spatial construction tamped-down and complicated. One’s eye is never led astray–the pictures hold. Mr. Oehlen’s take on painting may be equivocal, but he’s wise to its inner workings, seeing each canvas through to the end. He’s more of a painter than we might like to admit.

The pictorial chaos that Mr. Oehlen courts may be a means of wiggling out from under the nihilism that is his postmodern birthright–or so I like to think. I’m probably reading too much into his work. After all, the palette is nonexistent, and the pictures are grating in their insolence. Evasion can be as much an academic exercise as anything else. Still, you never know. Should Mr. Oehlen muster the will to actually believe in something, he might find himself the founder of good German painting.

© 2004 Mario Naves

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