New York

Albert Oehlen

Every time Albert Oehlen comes to town to show a new body of work—which on this occasion consisted of eight very large oil-on-canvas paintings from 2003—the bellyaching begins. With all the complaints that surface in the New York press you’d think that American audiences had never heard of the historical avant-garde’s strategies of defamiliarization and antiaestheticism, which are now almost a century old. But America has traditionally been defensive about what European artists might be up to behind its back, or worse, out there in front. The prevailing attitude of our conservative times demands that art be instantly intelligible; that we should know exactly where we stand with it and that there is no funny business going on that might end with us playing the fool.

While he has mellowed considerably over the last twenty-five years, Oehlen made a formidable reputation for himself in the ’80s as one of the leading bad boys in contemporary art. This didn’t help to ameliorate the affronts to taste he staged in his painting. But, of course, all blasphemers are believers at heart. The only way to debase painting is, first, to make a painting. To do so “badly” was a badge of honor for Oehlen and others of his generation, as it had been for generations before, whether we look to his teacher Sigmar Polke or to Kurt Schwitters and his colleagues in Dada.

Viewers have come to expect “not immediately likable” painting from Oehlen—so much so that many myopically credit him as one of the founders of the German “bad”-painting school. In large part, Oehlen does his best to live up to expectations, primarily through means of absurdity. Often his imposition of a set of rules or structural limitations starts the ball rolling; in several of the 2003 paintings, he rotated the canvas throughout its production, a strategy that resulted in pictures of disorientation.

Included in this “every-which-way-is-up” group are Stück (Piece), Schaum (Foam), and Geigenbau (Violin Making). It’s difficult to get a grip on what might be fugitive landscapes lurking in their messy patches of paint and spaghetti junctions of multiple rotational shifts. Viewers’ heads turned this way and that in order to see more of the fleeting visions these paintings seem to provoke but rarely sustain. Sci-fi fragments, partial diagrams of spatial structures, bits of quasi-mechanical figures—these and other motifs conspire with gestures that read as archetypal mistakes (including unruly swipes and erasures, awkward drawing, and the occasional cartoon) to underwrite an abundant ambiguity. Nothing coheres in a way that could be said to have substantive narrative dimension or pictorial legibility—except for sundry stops and starts that play at the margins of content. At the same time there’s no denying Oehlen’s involvement with paint. He’s good enough to make it look like he may not care, but that’s not fooling anyone, especially when the paintings are ten feet tall.

Oehlen’s style of abstraction is a little strange, a little ugly, but then very beautiful and moody too. Looking at Absteigende Heisse Strahlen (Descending Hot Rays), a quiet grisaille painting, one might imagine it describes a theatrical moment—a dancer doing a soft-shoe with a bucket over his head. It is both whimsical and pensive. Perhaps I’ve overdetermined the subject matter. Did I see it that way immediately or only after several long looks? Is it really there, or have I imagined it? I have no idea. For painting to be this slippery, this evanescent, it’s got to be good.

Jan Avgikos