The Good, the Bad, the Ugly
It is experience rather than age which supports painting’s claim to being the most seasoned of art forms. Strung together as a narrative, paintings’ many art historical movements form quite an elaborate series of plot twists. Over the last 150 years, the twists have become so elaborate that the close of each chapter is often mistaken for the denouement. But alas, the page of history is turned and the plot which drives painting, the quest for a set of values which define and legitimize the practice in relationship to its history and social context, resumes. Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism, Symbolism, Cubism, Suprematism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and Neo-expressionism; the story seems to know no end. Only when we have reached the epilogue and the last canvas is unveiled, can it be said that we have finally made good on Cezanne’s offer to deliver ‘the truth in painting.’ But our understanding of ‘the truth in painting’ is derived from conclusions reached through a historical sequence. The truth as to what a painting is, was, and can be, has been an ever-changing set of propositions whose limits have been defined from painter to painter over a span of art historical movements. Picasso, Malevich, Mondrian, Reinhardt, Warhol, Ryman, Buren, Toroni, Sturtevant, and Richter have all established a series of limits formidable enough to provoke an anxiety about further developments in the medium of painting; an anxiety which has left a future generation of painters with the need to justify investigations into the practice. For German painter, Albert Oehlen, painting need not be justified in relationship to these limits. As Oehlen stated in an interview last year, “Likewise, in the history of abstract painting you find each artist setting up a framework to explain why any particular painting had to look this way and no other. By contrast, I’m not interested in the autonomy of the artist or of his signature style. My concern, my project, is to produce an autonomy of the painting, so that each work no longer needs that kind of legitimizing framework.”
Nothing is true. Everything is permitted. Despite this truism’s radical stance, it makes for a succinct and informative introduction to Oehlen’s recent body of work. It may take a little more than a cursory glance to realize, but Oehlen’s recent paintings do a bad job of posing as the abstract expressionist works for which they could easily be mistaken. As a set of conventions, painting has come to accommodate a broad and contradictory range of techniques. The use of silk-screen, pre-printed fabrics, drips, smacks, smears and smudges have assumed a place alongside painting’s more traditional methods, materials and time honored skills such as draughtsmanship, color theory, composition and handling of surface. But all of these conventions are still at the service of style. No matter how abstract, a painting still maintains an internal logic based on a set of repeated characteristics or combination of conventions which become a code allowing us to read the work. Oehlen’s recent body of work is defined by the conspicuous absence of any such code. From painting to painting and within a single painting, a cogent visual code is unable to be fully assembled. But Oehlen’s aversion to style also serves to obscure any content. A close look will often reveal recognizable forms beneath the restless, incongruous layering of elements. Whether it is an object, a portion of the human figure, a shape alluding to depth, the sentimental stripes of the rainbow or the pattern from cheap motel linens, the paintings are not as abstract as that first glance would have one believe. In this respect, it is not so much what Oehlen’s paintings contain as much as the style, categorization or immediate content which they seemingly lack. But the lack of both style and content do not translate into any lack of reason to paint. If anything is true of Oehlen’s recent body of work, it is that no style and no content actually means more painting.
Negational strategies have played an important role in shaping much of the art of this century. It has proven an invaluable tool through which artists have foiled and then reconstructed our expectations and understanding of art. But for Oehlen, style, as the exclusion of other choices, has eclipsed the possibility for painting to achieve a meaningful conclusion through negation. Therefore, if negation is to remain an effective means through which painting can remain a viable form of expression, then its relationship to style must be renegotiated. Toward this end, Oehlen has called into question what is to be negated.
Oehlen considers the collapse of negation into style to have occurred because negational strategies have been derived “from one and only one avenue of questioning.” Surprisingly enough, what separates Oehlen from a preceding generation of painters is not his definition of negation, but its application. Oehlen defines negation as “the visible working through of inferences, misunderstandings, ideas to be criticized, and also your own mistakes.” And this is precisely what his paintings contain. But instead of negating one particular style or set of findings, Oehlen’s canvases represent a chorus of contradictory gestures; figuration is set against abstraction, form against anti-form, the rhythm of pattern versus a meandering stroke, and a muddy mix of colors juxtaposed against vibrant pigment straight from the tube. Actually, the sum total of negations is so great that a one to one correspondence between the contradictions is destroyed in the layering. No single principal could be used to explain or justify these works. Whether they are good or bad, pretty or ugly, Oehlen’s paintings are always autonomous in so far as they have managed to eliminate through contradiction an allegiance to any particular style.
Despite their attempt to overcome style through layers of contradiction, Oehlen is well aware that his method of working runs the risk of becoming yet another style. Oehlen acknowledged this in a comparison between himself and Ad Reinhardt. “I like Reinhardt, but at the point and for the reasons that he decides to paint only black paintings, I paint the craziness that I paint.” Oehlen’s recent color works can then be seen as a negation of the reductivist conclusions reached by Reinhardt. All the things Reinhardt banished from painting have found a home in Oehlen’s canvases. But Oehlen’s logic requires that he simultaneously negate his negation of Reinhardt. Just as he has developed an additive process, he must also develop a reductivist process. Although they may not seem related, both the color works and the computer-generated paintings are the flip sides of the same coin. Both share formal similarities such as the use of pattern and the striking counterpoint between a meandering, arbitrary scribble and an arrangement of lines which suggest a diagram’s clarity of purpose. After a while, the computer paintings even begin to read like the color works, minus the flesh and flamboyance. The computer works, however, are not simply reductivist skeletons but full negations of the color works. Most noticeably, the computer paintings have forsaken a good deal of the tension in the color works by disavowing the former’s aggressive, gestural painterliness. The splashes, smears and drips of the color works reek of a drama surrounding the human hand as it moves across the painted surface. By contrast, the computer paintings are overblown doodles created with the comparatively microscopic movements of the mouse. Oehlen further removes the hand from the computer paintings by homogenizing the surface through the use of silk-screen. To reiterate this absence he will occasionally connect certain elements with a single hand-painted stroke.
Oehlen’s decision to embrace painting was itself an act of negation. Born in 1954, Oehlen studied painting in the seventies under Sigmar Polke in Hamburg. Throughout the sixties and early seventies, minimalist and conceptual artists cast doubt as to whether painting could serve as a vehicle for contemporary concerns. This position was complicit with a history of painting which interpreted the medium’s radical limits as steps towards its obsolescence. Oehlen’s refusal to succumb to the skepticism surrounding painting was also a challenge to reinterpret the history of painting so that the medium could respond free from the anxiety of being written out of art history. But Oehlen’s critique of painting through painting would have to begin with a response to Neo-expressionism, a wildly successful painting movement comprised of artists from a generation prior to Oehlen’s. By the late seventies, painting was poised for a comeback. Painters such as Oehlen, who were formulating a progressive stance which would re-negotiate painting’s past and therefore its trajectory, were suddenly upstaged by an extraordinarily stylized movement which relied on precisely the type of past Oehlen was calling into question. Neo-expressionism, however, legitimized itself primarily through its content which then dictated the style. Paint was the medium through which a given subject could transmit its emotional charge. While Oehlen did not doubt that sentiments could achieve representation, in the case of Neo-expressionism, he did doubt the ability of that representation to work in concert with its chosen subject matter. For Oehlen, Neo-expressionism’s attempt at a direct correspondence between paint, sentiment and subject matter, assumed a false faith in representation as well as the medium of paint. In response, Oehlen produced a series of ‘bad paintings,’ the most famous of which was a portrait of Hitler done in 1986.
Oehlen’s portrait of Hitler is about as subtle as a hand grenade. Executed in garish primary colors, this painting is meant to be read as a successful Neo-expressionist work on one hand and a failure on the other. The most elementary sentiments associated with each of the primary colors, red as angry, blue as sad, and yellow as joy, would seemingly undermine the subject matter. Hitler is a complex phenomenon far beyond a reduction to any single sentiment or a brash combination thereof. In short, as a subject, Hitler exceeds representation, especially one driven by sentiment. Although Hitler is an extreme example, Oehlen has extended this doubt about representation through to his current work.
The works in this exhibition take their titles from compositions by saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman. Although painting’s relationship to music, particularly abstract expressionism’s relationship to jazz, make this gesture seem cliché, it actually suits the work well given Coleman’s quest to play without style. Besides, it is at the moment when something is ready to be cast off as a cliché that Oehlen prefers to intercede. Painting has long envied music’s autonomy, its purity as an art form, and its independence from an objective reality. In fact, painting was thought to have achieved the same type of autonomy through abstraction. For Oehlen, these sorts of conclusions are far from bitter endings. They are instead fruitful beginnings. Rather than reiterate a history with a foregone conclusion, Oehlen’s findings are an attempt to deflect the trajectory of painting away from the exhaustion and anxiety of past limits, towards more stable middle ground. Although the view may not be as dramatic, it does contain the neglected element of surprise, which comes from enjoying the journey rather than obsessing about its end.