Critics’ Picks

Richard Oelze, Kein Finger taucht auf im Gewölk (No Finger Revealed in the Clouds), 1967, oil on canvas, 26 x 32".

Richard Oelze, Kein Finger taucht auf im Gewölk (No Finger Revealed in the Clouds), 1967, oil on canvas, 26 x 32".

London

Richard Oelze

Michael Werner | London
22 Upper Brook Street
November 12, 2016–January 7, 2017

The German painter Richard Oelze spent part of the 1930s in Paris, where he first encountered the Surrealists. His eccentric personality (he lived in squalor, rarely left his apartment, and destroyed much of his work) inspired the title character in Mina Loy’s novel Insel—published posthumously in 1991 then republished in 2014—contributing to a revival of interest in this neglected artist.

On first encounter, it’s tempting to see Oelze as an epigone of Max Ernst. Ernst’s use of decalcomania, where paint is pressed between surfaces to create random patterns, out of which the artist then elicits forms through a process of free association, inspired Oelze to adopt a somewhat similar process. But while Ernst, like the majority of canonical Surrealists, was essentially a picture-maker, Oelze’s commitment to a little varied painterly process aligns him with Yves Tanguy or with such abstract Surrealists as Roberto Matta. The eighteen paintings on display all evoke the experience of pareidolia—the perception of familiar shapes in random textures. But incipient biomorphism is constantly regressing into a kind of studied formlessness, creating a sense of intense ambivalence. We are confronted, to borrow a thought from Insel, with the “procreational chaotic vapor in which all things may begin to grow.”

Twenty-four untitled figurative scrapbook drawings, ca. 1956–78, reveal a preoccupation with eyes, most of which are rendered over-large and oddly empty. Oelze compared himself to a character out of Franz Kafka, but in his attachment to gray abjection and a depopulated world of ash and mud, the more obvious affinity is with Samuel Beckett.