Albert Oehlen @ Gagosian, London / February 5 – March 24, 2016

OEHLEN Untitled (Baum 30), 2015_GG_cc

ALBERT OEHLEN Untitled (Baum 30), 2015, Oil on Dibond, 118 1/8 x 78 3/4 inches, 300 x 200 cm. © Albert Oehlen. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Stuart Burford.

London looks better in winter. The trees are stripped back to their trunks and slender branches. There is not so much elegance to a London Plane tree in winter, but without its leaves it affords more visibility to one of the city’s greatest statements about its past; its architecture. Without leaves, the trees, with their tangled, spindly branches sprouting from battered trunks, appear less organic and more like rudimentary diagrams of trees, rendered by someone who has never actually seen one.

Albert Oehlen’s current works at Gagosian are ostensibly renderings of trees. Are they depictions however, or are they impressions, stylisations or abstractions of trees, and if so to what extent is the tree the subject? Before approaching the work in this show in isolation, it may be useful to consider the artist’s earlier career. Viewed out of the context of Oehlen’s previous work, this show can give the impression of being a snapshot of work representative of an ongoing series; such is the consistency of approach to each panel. However, Oehlen’s relationship with the medium of paint has long been one of planned experimentation and deliberate digression. Before starting a series of work his strategy has often involved laying down a set of self-imposed rules. These ‘limiting’ devices, such as using a computer to ‘design’ paintings or setting out with the intention of making a ‘bad’ painting, might seem coldly intellectual, but they have yielded some interesting results, not all of them easy to look at. With the current series of paintings it is hard to be sure how involved the artist is with his subject beyond it being just one of several limiting devices put in place in order to allow the work to take shape. Amongst Oehlen’s previous limiting strategies, perhaps the most telling has been the self-imposed edict to ‘work slow’. This may be an inevitable result of years of aesthetic excess. Oehlen worked closely with Martin Kippenberger during the 1980s and 90s; a period of large, witty statements in paint. After the fin-de-siècle party of course, painting, along with everything else, still had to account for itself.  

Almost ten years ago, looking at Oehlen’s paintings in the Whitechapel Gallery’s survey of the artist’s work, I Will Always Champion Good Painting, it was hard to see beyond the bombastic scale and wilful gaudiness of the large canvasses on display. Perhaps it is due to the diminishing relevance of the debate about the future of painting, and the merciful distance we have now achieved from those endless art school debates, that makes it easier to look at Oehlen’s new work on its own terms, in a clearer, less cluttered light. The scale of the work is still considerable; a factor which adds an extra level of consistency to the artist’s project overall. If the 80s and 90s were about big canvasses, then by not suddenly abandoning this large scale, Oehlen’s choice can safely be said to be one of genuine preference. In an over-intellectualising climate it can be easy to forget that painters still make gut decisions about things such as scale and colour. 

OEHLEN Untitled (Baum 44), 2015_GG_cc

ALBERT OEHLEN Untitled (Baum 44), 2015, Oil on Dibond, 98 7/16 x 98 7/16, 250 x 250 cm. © Albert Oehlen. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Stefan Rohner.

When compared to the sinister woodland quiet of the Baum series at Gagosian, much of Oehlen’s previous work seems to clamour with the rowdy ghosts of the city. The trees in this present series, rendered in black oil and spray paint, seem demonic, as though they threaten to step off the painted Dibond surface. Are these trees simply vehicles for paint; their imagined branches turning into meandering paths of abstract paintwork? They have no centre, no perspective, no orientation. Again, we could be looking up through the bare black silhouette of a Plane tree at the white-grey London sky. Oehlen has primarily allowed himself two other colours in this series; Magenta and what appears to be Phthalo Blue. Across the series of thirteen panels these colours are further restricted to floating rectangles and squares, within which they are applied in gradations. What is perhaps a single application of paint gives up a diminishing amount of colour with each successive stroke. This nominal ‘shading’ threatens to trick us into imaging we are looking at a sky or a receding wall. These geometric features however are somewhere between Abstract Expressionism and Analytical Cubism; somewhere between Hans Hofmann’s floating ‘push / pull’ devices and Fernand Leger’s trompe l’oeil tubes. Used in this way, the vocabularies of AB EX and Cubism take on the look of having been rendered by someone who has never seen either one but only heard their identifying features described. It requires skill and self discipline to use such references in a way that doesn’t dominate the work, and Oehlen has been committed to the free use of such painterly references in his work for a long time. The skill lies in not allowing oneself to get too involved with these motifs; in maintaining a critical distance. AB EX, amongst other forms, is arguably a style of painting which will continue to be debated, examined and even re-presented, some might say rehashed, others, remixed. Oehlen’s intention is not to bring it back to life, but to use it casually as just one more visual device. After all, the point is to keep working. 

The existential crises in painting around the turn of the Twentieth Century exert a retroactive pull on those who remember them. Oehlen’s response has been to use a series of inventive personalised strategies, each of which demonstrate the impossibility of reaching an end point in painting. The cumulative result of these strategies of self-limitation is a body of work which has remained true to itself, created by an artist who has continued to paint through the debate.

 

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse @ Royal Academy, London, January 30 to April 20, 2016.

Key 36
Auguste Renoir, Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873
Oil on canvas, 46.7 x 59.7 cm
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell, 1957.614
Photo (c) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT

 

The opening pages of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James take place against the backdrop of a garden as neat as a Nineteenth Century drawing room. James could evoke the intimate and the domestic spaces of privileged life like few other writers. The action, which would normally take place inside, unfolds instead in the garden. In this instance the garden has become a continuation of the interior space. It is even described as such. “Privacy here reigned supreme, and the wide carpet of turf that covered the level hill-top seemed but an extension of a luxurious interior.” (1)

Against the backdrop of the industrialised Nineteenth Century, with the modern city growing in the background, the private garden was becoming not only a pastime, but an artistic subject in itself. Public parks and other communal garden spaces were also developing. But it is the intimate space of the private garden, glowing in the dense stillness of a summer’s day, that is the most common component of the current show at the Royal Academy. If the garden, by the end of the Nineteenth Century, had become a private space of leisure for a comfortable minority, it had also become one of the principal subjects, along with the domestic interior, for an artist to master. The garden space, as distinct from landscape, is a subject which arguably lends itself more to a discussion of medium than subject matter. The domestic garden, along with the domestic interior, relates to the artist and the viewer on a very human scale. Some of the most interesting works in the show, from a painter’s perspective, are those in which there is little or no reference to perspective, scale or depth of field. These are paintings which might comfortably be carried with outstretched arms, perhaps even from the garden to the studio and back again. They are paintings in which the subject so fully occupies the picture plane as to become flattened, thus leading us into a more intimate examination of the paintwork.

The domestic interior as a subject in painting was a space within which all figurative elements: pieces of furniture, statuettes and plaster casts, bowls, rugs, windows and even people were often given the same importance. This democratisation of all pictorial elements was carried through with a lifelong consistency by Braque in his studio interiors, and, as can be seen in the present show as represented by two strikingly spare canvasses, by Matisse. The room itself becomes a kind of shallow display cabinet of forms of equal value. Figures are no longer shifting forward or receding in scale. Instead, they interact within a flattened plane.

Key 64 new
Henri Matisse, The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer 1917
Oil on canvas, 146 x 97 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956
Photo (c) 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / (c) Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015

 

The private garden with its arrangements of domestic and exotic flower and plant species, ornamental garden features, and the lawn or the hedgerow acting as a sort of neutral ground, provided a painterly space of the same order as the domestic interior. There are plenty of choices in this show which could be seen as reinforcing the notion of Impressionism as pure visual pleasure. For the artists however, it wasn’t always a pleasurable process. Monet spoke of painting as ‘continual torture’. And it is hard to imagine a more difficult subject to paint than an undifferentiated field of plants in full bloom. In any case, not all the work on display is, strictly speaking, Impressionist. Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee are represented in the later rooms with canvases which are clearly looking at the subject of the garden with a new-found awareness of the developments underway in painting.

However, the most convincing argument for the power of paint beyond image-making is made by Monet through the famous Water Lily series.  The artist worked on the fringes of his water garden in Giverny between 1914 and his death in 1926. The panoramic canvases, which are his best known of the series, are dependent on their large scale to such an extent that it is difficult to know if they can really be spoken about as being from the same series as the much smaller canvases of the same subject. These larger canvases involve the viewer on such an experiential, physical scale that they no longer seem to be paintings alone. By virtue of our sheer smallness in front of them, we are once again within the image. In the inverse of the way we might imagine ourselves reclining in the dead heat of summer, on a cool flat lawn, when we look at some of the smaller more ‘pictorial’ works in the show, we feel as though one wrong step in front of Monet’s gigantic canvases and we risk tumbling into the lily pond.

Key 87

Claude Monet, Nympheas (Waterlilies), 1914-15
Oil on canvas, 160.7 x 180.3 cm
Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16
Photo (c) Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon.

 

Scale is critical in painting. The decision to blow up the dimensions to a cinematic level changes every aspect of the work. Monet, by expanding the field of his Water Lily canvases, could be seen as pre-empting the experiments of a later period in the history of modern painting. It would be quite a convoluted association to make however, to claim true similarity of intent in the practices of Monet and Rothko for example. I find it more comfortable to suggest that Monet’s larger Water Lily canvases create a more theatrical space; one in which the viewer can no longer hold the painting at a metaphorical arm’s length.

As with Monet’s super-sized canvases, large scale paintings of interiors also force the viewer into an appreciation of the depicted space which necessarily involves their own body. Could the viewer’s space for example be an extension of that of the painting and vice versa? The smaller Water Lily canvases address the subject on a scale which neither reduces its effect to that of illustration; true pictorial space, nor inflates it to a scale where the intellectual richness of the paintwork becomes swamped by visceral physicality involving our own bodies. When limited to the scale of a comfortable arm’s span, the Water Lily series invites many enticing speculations. For example, are these works in fact upside down?  The water occupies the majority of each canvas; but it is the inverted reflection on that water of sky and foliage which constitutes the image which we ultimately register. The lilies themselves are suspended somewhere between water and sky as there is no perspectival reference point except for the slight difference in size between the flowers at the top of the canvas and those at the bottom. The paint itself sometimes disappears near the edges of the canvas; whether or not this was intentional on the artist’s part, the effect is to add to the feeling of zero gravity. These are just some of the questions which these profound paintings raise. Staring into their depths, it is even more remarkable to think that the artist was painting them during a time of upheaval, with the sounds of war audible even in a clear blue sky.
(1) “…The great still oaks and beeches flung down a shade as dense as that of velvet curtains; and the place was furnished, like a room, with cushioned seats, with rich-coloured rugs, with the books and papers that lay upon the grass.” Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pp 60, 61.