Markus Oehlen

Markus Oehlen has somewhat ironically characterized his paintings as “Informal Pop,” and this phrase sums up one’s initial impression of the work: bright colors in multiple layers and apparently hasty gestures combine to create an almost psychedelic effect. The paintings are not quite what they seem, however; on closer examination, one realizes that their apparent spontaneity is the result of an elaborate process.

Oehlen creates linoleum cuts and then projects the patterns onto the canvas, drawing the projected shapes with meticulous care, adding still more and more layers, using felt-tip pens and oil paint to create precise borders and edges. Complex, abstract, and frequently overlapping structures emerge through this process: amorphous shapes are overlaid on stripe patterns, suggesting micro- and macro-structures.

Like the computer-generated paintings by Oehlen’s brother Albert, these formally overdetermined paintings have a synthetic quality, and they are reminiscent of digital images based on mathematical calculations. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Oehlen’s canvases reflect a serious engagement with scientific investigations; while he may use technical aides, such as an overhead projector, his process is dominated by manual activity, and his paintings are “handmade” in the best sense. Highlighting the disparity between expressive facture and a predetermined set of constraints, Oehlen maps the uncertain territory between spontaneous and conceptual artmaking.

The allover patterns, hard-edged, stereoscopic effects, and colliding primary colors in these works are reminiscent of Op art.The irony that characterized his previous works, however, has become less apparent in these more recent canvases, perhaps in part because he has refrained from using the figurative elements he often used in the past. The show’s title, “Paranoia Picknick,” and the titles of the individual paintings—neologisms that refer to supplies for medical emergencies—are humorous and ambiguous: the question of whether Oehlen intends his paintings to serve as some kind of art-historical cure remains open.

One can compare the layering of stylistic elements in Oehlen’s work with musical sampling. In fact, he has long made music that parallels his art: he has been playing in bands since the ’80s, and last year he made a CD with his brother Albert and the jazz musician Rudiger Carl. His paintings are like acoustic vibrations playing across the retina of the observer.

Yilmaz Dziewior

Translated from the German by Vivian Heller.