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.
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.