Immersed in image, video, the world wide web and other spectacular media, us Westerners live in a bubble forecast in Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Debord predicted a society built on total commodification, where being is replaced by having, and appearance usurps reality. It’s a disturbing thought that capitalist logic seems to evolve of its own accord, impersonally. One might ask – where is the self in all this? According to the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, for example, the self has lost its ground, its hegemony. The self has become more a fragmented collage than a coherent unity, pulled in so many directions simultaneously by the spectacular forces that coerce, manipulate and seduce us.
Art at least still provides us with the fiction of romantic heroes and Albert Oehlen (b.1954) seems to want to place himself in this mileu; in his paintings, Oehlen just cannot resist the desire to “stick it to The Man”. A German expressionist, his work comes out of this twentieth century tradition of creating paintings completely intuitively. The raw intense energy of gesture acts as an umbilical cord back to the self. Selfhood and expressionism go together, yet unusual privileges accorded to the self can also become self-indulgent, mythologising and pompous. Much recent contemporary art has, in contrast, been an art of ideas, but the notion that painting and sculpture could be a vehicle for emotion and feeling, transmitted directly to the viewer, obviously remains a dream of many artists. Its difficult though to muster a subjectivity that can stand its ground against the overwhelming forces of the media spectacle. The self no longer seems large enough , and is merely one point in a network of connections. So the lyric poet can only feel like a microbe in the belly of a vast computerised whale.
This is the dilemma – how can we be heard? – that faced musicians such as Kurt Cobain or John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten. Oehlen in comparison is more like David Bowie. He manages to subsume that desperate urgency to express within a flaneur-like detachment. A sense that he never knows what he will find around the next corner, a kind of curious wonder, seems to drive the paintings as much as a need to cathartically release psychic energy. There is a sense that Oehlen believes in painting and wants to make a good painting, as is evidenced by the five very contrasting paintings in this exhibition of works owned by the Zabludowicz Collection. Some of the formal devices and juxtapositions are piss-elegant, beautiful even. In other instances the paintings are as ugly as the inside of a prison. An early work Untitled, 1982 (oil, lacquer and mirror on canvas), depicts exactly that; a prison yard, or at least an imprisoning edifice, painted with a crude, lumpen relish. Into its surface are inserted crazily misaligned bathroom mirrors, which reflect back the viewer’s own persona within the imprisoning environment of the painting. The self does return, but as a passive reflection. The painting is a Kafkaesque trap, using the medium of painting to imprison the viewer.
In the early eighties, Oehlen worked alongside a fellow-traveller in art, Martin Kippenberger. In the flesh, Kippenberger’s paintings have an awkward yet totally knowing, original touch that seemed perverse while he was alive but now is seen as radically original, a fusion of expressionism and graphic collage. Surely nobody who has sat through a job interview or interrogation by authority can resist the wild anarchy of his last great installation The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s America (1994), made of customised office furniture and crazy sculptural interventions, installed on Astroturf. However Kippenberger’s sense of the world’s corruption, extended to himself, and as a result, his own art, and life, became wildly self destructive. Oehlen, in comparison, seems to sustain his practice through a belief in painting’s formal possibilities. He is more willing to get lost in colour, shape and line. The more recent work is intense and compelling. Yet Oehlen never lets go of the tension that exists between an idea of painting as an aesthetic act, and the idea of painting as an act with political implications. A political question lurks inside his work. He seems to be asking – what sort of agency do I have in the world? Am I creating something here, or am I just reconfiguring what already exists? Am I rebelling or am I in fact being acquiescent? There’s also a utopian impulse – to make failure into virtue, to redeem failure, awkwardness and inarticulacy by making them articulate.
Recently Oehlen made an impressive exhibition at Gagosian on Madison Avenue of paintings that consisted of beautifully delicate, effervescent veils of paint floating upon the over-sized graphics of German billboard advertising. Since the late Eighties he’s used printed grounds, from advertising, the internet or computer-graphic doodles, so as to see his own gestures against spectacularised equivalents. He’s even made giant collages of uncanny found images, combining the medium of collage with that of painting. Collage as a form grew within modernism through Picasso, Schwitters, Rauschenberg and Polke but was often repressed through a notion of minimal purity and truth to materials. In Oehlen, collage seems like an inevitability, the true condition of art in a Postmodern age.
So the various logocentricities of Modernism, whether it be self , serendipity or the sublime, collapse into a sea of collage. Meanings, hierarchies, notions of taste are all levelled; what we are left with is intensely empty. To emphasise this, Oehlen has chosen to project the Adrian Lyne film Nine and a Half Weeks (1986) over his painting Nr.9 (2007) for one hour every day. This erotic thriller is pure escapist trash , the eighties version of Fifty Shades of Grey. It concerns a passionate, though short-lived, affair between an art dealer (played by Kim Basinger), and an investment banker (played by Mickey Rourke). It points to the convergence of art with investment banking, and in projecting it over his painting Oehlen is admitting culpability and involvement in this world of luxury and fantasy, a world that to the average viewer is both familiar and alien at the same time.
Success has inevitably changed Oehlen but one still senses a powerful energy and urgency in what he does. Unlike the more figurative work of his twenties, the work of the nineties and noughties allows for reverie and contemplation as well as vertiginous nausea. Deathoknocko (2001, inkjet print and oil on canvas) and Evilution 1 (2002, oil on canvas) are electrifying marvels that set the head spinning faster than even the most jarring Richter abstraction. What he achieves in these paintings is the paradox of a work of art that is both aesthetic and critical simultaneously. As we look at them, the paradoxes and contradictions of our own, and the work’s, culpability in the creation of a spectacular fiction pile up – it becomes impossible to extract oneself and look at the work with any distance. The only place to go is to get drawn in to their swarming surface world.
The paintings are surprisingly sensual. Out of trash elements, and using paint to break down the hardened up edges of of graphic advertising, Oehlen achieves a lyricism that is the complete opposite of what one might expect to find – deeply pleasurable, intimate even. He also can poke the viewer in the eye, and there are enough moments of jagged juxtaposition and poison for such a sensuality to feel realistic rather than escapist. For Oehlen the virtual landscape is a bit like Rousseau’s jungle, an unknown space that entices with its lure of erotic pleasure but also contains a threat of danger. Oehlen’s work reminds one that the world of media proliferates because it offers so many possibilities for pleasure. He undercuts any deluded romanticism with the inclusion of funky imagery and dumb corporate logos. He can’t resist the irony of imagistic symbols well past their sell-by date. Everywhere he confronts us with contradiction; formal achievement is mitigated by a casual arbitrariness, freedom is circumscribed and trapped. The colours sing but its difficult to imagine the musical equivalent of these paintings; they conflate so many genres together. Oehlen’s paintings plunge the viewer into the maelstrom that is Postmodern culture. They are paintings without a subject, whose peripheries are everywhere and whose centre is nowhere.