Albert Oehlen’s current show at Skarstedt, a selection of 14 “fabric paintings” made between 1992–96, is explosive. Explosive as in a burst or the arrival of a fiery red comet on earth. Those familiar with Oehlen’s more recent work will be delighted and thrown for a curve by these panels of vibrancy and chaos. I am one: I am an Oehlen follower and have been for some time, and so coming face to face with paintings made more than 10 years ago made for a kind of worm-hole experience. I hadn’t seen these works before. In fact, I wasn’t aware such works of his existed.
The paintings, throughout, are large and unlike his more recent work, which tends to appear more pristine in comparison and are made using computer techniques, these works are wild studies in chaos. Or, rather, studies in the act of attempting to control chaos. Oehlen has said in numerous interviews that he works by setting up rules for himself. For example, in an interview with Frieze magazine in 2003, he stated:
Following a self-imposed set of guidelines certainly gives you more momentum. Forbidding yourself certain things, believing in rules, is a good state to be in. That’s the way to develop as an artist, by giving yourself instructions what to do next.
This gesture, this move of constantly upping the ante, seems to me to be a means of challenging himself and, as a result, keeping in good painterly shape (not sliding into laziness of, for example, painting the same winning paintings over and over). Some artists find something that works (sells) and keep doing that but others try the opposite approach: shifting and moving, like a snake, into numerous transfigurations of themselves. You see this in Kippenberger, Polke, Genzken, von Heyl, and others — this constant act of transformation is a means to work within the art world’s set of rules while, simultaneously, rebelling against it. And yet these rules can also be seen as a means of pushing back against the chaos: the chaos on the canvas but also the chaos and cacophony of the world. Oehlen has been consistent in his assertion that his work is nothing but what it is: paint (or collage) on canvas (fabric).
The fabric upon which Oehlen has painted these works is, for the most part, reminiscent of seventies design: golds, browns, and yellows. One fabric, in particular, is of a repeated image of a gold daisy, with a forest-green center. Many, if not all, of the pieces are constructed of several smaller canvases. The effect, then, is of a patchwork, a sewing together of various disparate pieces. Using these wallpaper-like fabrics as backdrop creates a mood — of languor, of autumn, of sitting at an open window with leaves being blown by the wind. But, of course, Oehlen has painted over these fabrics, making a window of sorts, of the backdrop of fabric. Like a soundtrack, it remains in the painting but is drowned out by the foreground.
Take for example, “Ohne Title” (of which there are two, not to be confused with his paintings titled “Untitled” of which there are nine), a large painting made of six smaller canvases. In this piece, the original fabric is barely visible: one can only make out, on the top, a white fabric with, on the top left, forest green leaves and, on the top right, brown flowers and stems. This pattern reminded me of the plastic tablecloths a German grandmother might use to cover her table before serving Mittagessen for her grandchildren. Not particularly celebratory but not dour, either. I would say, tagtäglich or alltäglich; the everyday. Over this everyday-ness are layers or streams of color: a large brown stream coming from above, down through the center of the painting, and then eventually dispersing by the bottom. It is a kind of wash, this gesture. Over and across the canvas are thin snakes of white. But also pink and red. A rich brown in the background, as well as other gradations of this color and Oehlen’s hallmark ghosting, especially on the right side of the canvas. Other colors reveal themselves as well as a black and white striped pattern on the bottom half of the canvas. What we have, then, is chaos, chaos and disorder.
In the same way Oeheln sets up rules for himself for his paintings. These rules are also exercises in control. Many of the paintings in the show are made in the same way as “Ohne Titel” appears to be made, with a chaos of paint painted over the initial wallpaper-like fabric. But, in addition, above the chaos Oehlen has painted right angles in bright colors, such as orange, or lime green, and yellow. Also, there are squares such as in the painting, “Untitled (Composition)” and “Untitled” (1992). These right angles and squares create windows over the layers of chaos and in the way, are attempts at order.
This is particularly evident in “Untitled” (1992), in which the rich colors Oehlen has used make what appears to be a galaxy. But above this abstraction, coming down from the top right corner and up from the bottom left, and then moving across the entire canvas, are thick brown lines which hinge upon another, similar thick brown line coming down from the top left side of the canvas. The sense here is of the chaos, the combustion of color and cacophony of the canvas, being fixed in place by this belt or strap of lines. These lines connect, too, to a window like square that sits in the top left side of the canvas. Like a painting frame, with its edges embellished with a slight ribboning, this frame also seems to keep the movement of chaos in the layers below, in place. But, also, these various frames play with our looking. And these windows might be ways of helping us see into the painting, of directing us into the work: the paint, the fabric, the colors and brush strokes, and away from interpretation and analysis or what lies outside the painting. Or, as Oehlen said himself, in an interview with Diedrich Diedrichsen, “Nothing is codified — a mess is just a mess. I want an art where you see how it’s made, not what the artist intended, or what the work means, but what has been made, the traces of production.”
Albert Oehlen: The Fabric Paintings continues at Skarstedt (20 East 79th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through December 20.
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