New York

Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 2009–11, oil and paper on canvas, 82 3/4 x 105 3/8".

Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 2009–11, oil and paper on canvas, 82 3/4 x 105 3/8".

Albert Oehlen

Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 2009–11, oil and paper on canvas, 82 3/4 x 105 3/8".

In the 1980s, Albert Oehlen began exploiting hackneyed figuration to exquisitely perverse effect, thereby rendering “bad painting” an unassailable good object. By the end of that decade, he had mounted a reaction-formation-like foray into pure abstraction that was equally, if oppositely, estranging. These approaches are two sides of the same coin, yet the artist nevertheless took some time to hold them in tension, together. In his work of the past few years—including the seventeen canvases in this show, his first at Gagosian—they finally intermingle, a critical collusion that, no doubt, represents some kind of triumph. The results: large-scale panels that flaunt smudged gestural marks and appropriated elements, most commonly billboards emblazoned with corporate logos and edges rough enough to make clear their superimposition on white-primed canvases, against which their cardboard expanses buckle.

All the works involve a messy central section of blurred paint (a simultaneous invention and erasure that is a mainstay in his “Finger Painting” series, 2008–, as well); the formalism is especially up-front in FM 53, 2008–11, with its variegated blue border that both contains and subtends the scrawl. Thanks to the combination of drips, globs, and layers, even the most garish shades turn murky; the wet-on-wet saturation and muddling of distinct colors recalls the drab, convoluted palette of so much early Abstract Expressionism. Another point of reference betokened by these works is, most obviously, the brand of synthetic collage—so expertly practiced by Picasso—that flirts with, while ultimately denying, meaning in the text and images of its culled materials.

As the obliteration enacted by the painted portions suggests, legibility is beside the point, even as Oehlen seems to relish baiting us with glimpses of images, narrative, and words, the last sometimes offered in single-letter fragments (in F, 2009) and other times preserved whole (as in Vulkan, 2009). The cutouts are commonly pixelated—exaggeratedly so toward the figures’ edges, where they move beyond recognition and serve as abstracted, re-pictorialized matter. What does surface captures our attention: In Untitled, 2009, a model, wearing oversize white sunglasses and a fuchsia skirt, rests horizontally, splashed with the Web address for a mall in the Basque Country; another model, her face obliterated, wears a white-and-blue bikini in FM 58, 2011; Untitled, 2009, features a scene of beer-fueled sociability. In other works, more girls, playing cards, a chain saw, and a package of sausages comprise a jokey group, the campiness of which is neither contravened nor secured by its juxtaposition with equally equivocal—is its seriousness feigned?—muscular paint.

Untitled, 2009–11, also falls on the side of jocularity. Its lower register is filled with evenly spaced dots (orange, blue, pink, and green), placed off-kilter relative to the frame, that wink at the Benday dots visible elsewhere, Twister mats, and Damien Hirst spot paintings, the last having just vacated the uptown—and every other—Gagosian space. Perhaps it was the venue, or its previous occupant, but the association with the spot paintings in this site was unwelcome, for it had the potential effect of positioning Oehlen’s paintings as expressionistic decor rather than punk statement. If this show represented a triumph, then it also came at a relative cost.

Suzanne Hudson