New York

Albert Oehlen

In Albert Oehlen’s recent show—six canvases displayed along with three “computer drawings” that read as commentaries on the paintings—fans of conceptual abstraction are made as much a butt of his biting humor as the German public was in earlier work, which at times employed fascist imagery to probe German attitudes toward the past. Oehlen’s conceptual strategies are mordant and aggressive, but also convoluted. Expressionism has for some time been his primary target as well as his weapon of choice; but he goes far beyond merely exposing the impossibility of any kind of complete expression.

Indeed, Oehlen’s visual quotations are anything but arch. Unlike many other contemporary painters, his conceptual strategies do not serve to disguise an expressive content that some of us might balk at swallowing unmediated. Part of the irony is that the paintings, with their haphazard drips and jokey, extended forms, manufacture a kind of faux Surrealism; they seem, in particular, to mimic the specious brand of automatic drawing seen in the work of George Condo and Lydia Dona, whose efforts—while more idea-oriented than expressive—are far less sophisticated than Oehlen’s depressive analyses of the “meaning” of painting. His silkscreened black-on-white “drawings,” on the other hand, with their apparently computer-generated scrawls, loops, and areas of shading, mock his own faux gesturalism in these paintings, underlining his analytic subtext by simulating (in the style of a computer printout) even the patterns of the fabric that he sometimes paints over. Certain parts of these “drawings,” which make literal his parody of automatism, are marred by smudges, calling to mind a remark made by Werner Banner characterizing his own work as “a lie that presents itself as a lie.” Perversely enough, both the paintings and the “drawings” are somehow visually satisfying despite their emotive disengagement.

Oehlen’s paintings, though at first glance the least compelling of his efforts—which have included collages, carpet-design, writing, as well as photomontages reminiscent of certain works by Raoul Hausmann and John Heartfield—remain the focus of his investigations into how painting functions within the art world. His airless jokes, like his color and gesture, lack freshness, but as part of his almost relentlessly cynical strategies, they are effective in conveying a sour nihilism and disengaged despair. By simultaneously casting himself as an epigone of both the politically impotent Expressionists—who immolated social concerns within the isolating arena of painting—as well as Berlin-Dada provocateurs, Oehlen restages the death of a historical moment; his work is an exercise in defeat. But its embodiment of questions central to Oehlen’s endeavor makes his paradoxical claims to “truth” and “beauty” a little less than ludicrous. Or in Oehlen’s words, “Is irony possible? Is there such a thing as criticism? Is glorification possible?”

K. Marriot Jones