Tuesday, 18 March 2008



A show at Thomas Dane, London offers the artist’s now familiar combination of computer generated imagery printed onto canvas or panel, reworked with paint into layers of gesture, variously translucent and opaque, biomorphic or geometric, linear or tonal, abstract or figurative. The new work is restrained by the artist’s standards and gives new prominence to text, but the easy inclusiveness and disparity of elements continue to press the issue of abstraction for pictures, the resources of painting. For many, Oehlen’s ‘maximal’ compositions amount to a surrender to the arbitrary, to just ‘anything goes’ and a dead end for abstraction. This post looks at how Oehlen arrives at this style, at what ordering it retains.

Significantly, Oehlen began as a Neo-Expressionist, concerned firstly with figuration. His approach there is distinct from the ragged allegory of exponents in Cologne, the satirical revival by counterparts in Berlin. Oehlen is less concerned with print sources for pictures, than his Hamburg colleague Martin Kippenberger (even though Oehlen studied with Sigmar Polke). Oehlen’s Neo-Expressionism is noted for its heavier, more fluent facture, attention to literal objects (with tone and depth) albeit treated in an abrupt or peremptory way. Satire or ridicule arise through unlikely or eccentric subjects, scarcely recognisable through brutal treatment, or in traditional subjects, dealt with severely, as in Rotten Renaissance Rita (1984).

However, toward the end of the 80s Oehlen seems to have drifted to more schematic or stylized subjects, and by the 90s these in turn give way to greater abstraction, pairing hard edge, biomorphic forms with greater geometry or gesture. In many respects this is a timely move (see also Posts 10 and 18). But Oehlen takes up the issue indifferent to Minimalist concerns with process and extended materials, to Pattern and Decoration and the repeating motif (see also Posts 24 and 53). As a consequence his work can seem conservative where materials and technique are concerned, flaccid where composition or structure is concerned. There are examples where he includes patterned fabric, obviously recalling Polke, and wooden surfaces acknowledging extended materials, but generally he concentrates on a range of shapes or motifs across degrees of the organic or geometric, transparent or flat, linear or tonal. If there is a pattern, it is so diffuse as to encompass all in any configuration, if there is a native form or ideal for painting, it is so versatile as to allow myriad variations.

Oehlen maximises the options, in much the same spirit that he baulked at the figurative or more concrete depiction. And the effect is actually the inverse. Where his Neo-Expressionism never quite got close to the subject, his abstraction never quite escapes it. The organic, mechanical, translucent or runny all run to concrete reference when set in generous variation. When stretched wide enough, differences in abstraction turn some more concrete or figurative. In effect, there is never enough pattern to completely abstract the picture, never enough picture to quite do without pattern. Evasion, or the deliberate scattering of commitment, now shapes as a central theme.

The dismay felt by some toward this dissolution of structure then, is real enough, in so far as any purity of abstraction is maintained, but abstraction need not be exclusive or absolute here. While Oehlen allows a surprising range of elements and versions, especially through the 90s, it quickly becomes clear that there is no way to include all kinds of abstraction, in any number of versions, and that some ranges hold more excitement than others. His work duly alternates between the more figurative and less, the more stylish or fashionable and less. In the mid 90s, experiments with basic Photoshop tools applied to commissioned murals and mosaics lead to inkjet printing onto panel for painting and inevitably to the introduction of photography by the same route. Understandably, this becomes the preferred method, for painting and ‘collage’. The artist is able to exploit not only a greater precision to linear and colour grading through the computer, but more standard depiction. Where these set the key for further painting, Oehlen is able to derive stricter variations and differences, notably in the restriction to colour or upon stable grounds. Even where little of the print remains visible, volume and spatial orientations tend to anchor the composition, inspire looser orders, related objects and qualities.

In more recent work this construction has tightened even more and the diversity to printed elements, or collage, is almost the work in itself, leaving to painting mostly just the scantest blurring of colour or outline. Interestingly, these blurs often align with the figure or body, contrast pointedly with text or language and give the abstraction a deeply visual, corporeal value. Oehlen’s work, while elusive on so many traditional and favoured levels, is never far from a point.

1 comment:

M.A.H. said...

Great site! Look forward to catching up on what I've missed.