Albert Oehlen at Luhring Agustine
Trying to fail has played a major role in the work of Albert Oehlen, the midcareer painter from Germany. Convinced that painting sets out either to build up or tear down, Oehlen went so far as to paint a portrait of Hitler in 1986—mostly to see whether such a work might be successful from a propaganda point of view today. By his own admission, the work failed terribly; however, he also made the point that such a failure was intended. He said in a 1999 interview: “it really is a disaster somehow, but was meant for that.” By concentrating on the content of the painting, its ability to reify a reputation, Oehlen escapes the impartiality of a formalist approach, something that he has consistently turned away from. His achievement as a theorist of what art contains has allowed him to experiment with painting as if it were only a vehicle for political attitudes. The painting thus depends on the social resolve of the artist, who informs the composition with materials that can be read for their political bias rather than for their formal properties.
In Oehlen’s current show, he uses Spanish advertisement posters as his ground: his decision to do so may well reflect an ongoing decision to quite literally paint over advertising’s seductiveness. Oehlen covers the commercial imagery without obliterating it completely, yet the results feel very much like a critique of advertising. Interestingly, the paintings are often sumptuous in their presentation—despite his determination to fail, Oehlen’s esthetic yields, even if unknowingly, to some formalist discourse. We know of course that the nullity of a deliberately nonvisual language has been part of postmodern painting for some time now, and Oehlen’s art falls directly into a general critique of painting’s intentions. In his Mujer (2008), a large oil-and-paper work on canvas, broadly expressionist strokes, in red and green and brown and mauve, disfigure and partially obscure a headless, armless, legless red and black female figure, with the word “Mujer” beneath. The advertisement poster of the women’s torso acts as a foil for the destructive aspect of Oehlen’s intervention, which is a scramble of overlapping colors that issue out to the left of where the woman’s heart would be. Oehlen’s negation of the picture seems to me a primarily political act, albeit one with ramifications for current painting debates.
In Ice (2008), another large oil and paper on canvas, Oehlen uses an upside down advertisement for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream as the center of his painting. There is also a series of letters in a formal script that run across the center of the painting; they are hard to decipher and seem to exist for organizational purposes. Beneath this imagery are a series of broad yellow stripes whose tops are set by a curving black line. Separated by thin white stripes, these repeated bands of color barely influence the painting’s major action, which consists of the covering over of the ice cream ad. It is as if Oehlen wished to do away with the visual language of consumerism but has found the prospect daunting, even impossible to bring about. The best he can do is to partially destroy the image he has chosen for himself. Sin (2008) consists of a sign with those letters, although only the right edge of the “s” can be seen; to its right is a poster for a musical tour, again with its center covered over by formless smudges of tan and blue paint. Is the painting a warning of some sort, or does it merely randomly incorporate letters that happen to spell out a word in English? Interestingly, both readings seem plausible, allowing Oehlen room to deny and reinforce sense in the same moment. This is work whose intellectual implications—and consequences—are of a very high order.