Luhring Augustine, April 25 – June 13, 2009
In Albert Oehlen’s large, bright and raucous new canvases at Luhring Augustine, paint seems to pollute the compositions as though it has nowhere to belong. The work not only upsets a historical hierarchy of materials (oil and paper on canvas), but also avoids privileging or renouncing one in light of the other. The collages indict both the flatness of Computer Aided Design (CAD) and the illusionist limitations of oils. Each painting takes its title from words found in the Spanish advertisements that Oehlen uses as its background: “Del ahorro,” “Hombre,” “Electrodom.” It’s a push-pull rapport between the fleeting painterly gestures of the hand and the eerily static and sharp resolutions of CAD-generated graphics. The sprays, smears and feathery swipes of color constitute a rarefied, floating foreground against the crisp alien authority of the collaged photographic and textual fragments. As a veteran witness to his own process, Oehlen seems to have an intuitive distrust of both media; still, he’s not saying “down with oils!” or “Photoshop is corrupt!” The paint becomes (as in complements) the collage the way that graffiti can become a cement wall. It’s a territorial gesture. He picks up whatever tools, old or new, are available to him and wields them with ease. It’s left to the viewer to recognize (or gloss over) how the materials clash or meld, undermining and enhancing each other with varying intensities. No single figurative or abstract element is sufficient; only when they can be made to co-exist does something provocative result.
Oehlen is a survivor of the celebrated milieu of German iconoclasts that included Martin Kippenberger, whose recent retrospective, The Problem Perspective, derived its title from the No Problem manifesto he co-authored with Oehlen. This new show is a testament to Oehlen’s longevity, versatility, and ability to stay contemporary and relevant. It’s not often that you see art in Chelsea that seems to participate in a dialogue that is as much about art history as it’s about the billboards on the West Side Highway, or the new TV screens on the tops of taxis. These paintings don’t offer answers (Kippenberger was notorious for identifying problems while not offering any solution) and don’t need to. They’re interesting in themselves. They revolve around the crisis of reality inherent with CAD. They confront contemporary problems straightforwardly, without an overeager concern for status as contemporary. They are mature and precise in an engagement with the new. Billboards aren’t new, but Photoshopped and digitally printed ones are.
Oehlen calms the clashing dynamics of picture and paint with ample patches of white canvas. Entire halves of some remain blank. This helps the paint and the collaged picture and text seem more like autonomous events occupying their own unique space, almost like computer windows floating on a screen. The paintings document where, how, and why Oehlen strategically “gave-up,” but without “giving-in” to the show-stopping virtuosity of paint or the utter flatness of the posters. The paintings begin to resemble a build-up of clutter on a worktable. Their unfinished or interrupted appearance is part of why they are so disconcerting. The canvases hang unframed while empty frames and boxes abound inside the compositions, which, like a centrifuge, fly out in every direction from the absence of a core.
Images of food, appliances, and the human form compel the viewer to reckon with the kind of flat, formal un-interpretability that Jean Baudrillard called the “inescapable transparency” of visual communication in the information age. In the painting “Del ahorro,” a crooked human elbow (presumably a woman’s) juts up from the bottom of the canvas like the fin of a shark. A gray letter “F” dissolves into a widescreen television showing a fireworks display beside the rest of the word, “UCK,” that holds the center amid smears of viscous tan, pink, and white. In another, a surfer’s wetsuit (no head) stands in for the classical female torso, with the Spanish word “mujer,” for woman, as a label at the bottom. In both cases, the body is a vacant fetish object rendered immaculate by a computer—a consumerist aesthetic of sensuality that so much of contemporary media manipulates as a common denominator.
Ben Tripp is a poet and editor of the literary magazine Gerry Mulligan.