With the rise of punk subculture in the late 70's and early 80's, the Neue Wilde movement flashed through the art schools and studios of artists working in Berlin, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Austria and Switzerland. Producing a neo-expressionistic revival of painting, and a reactionary stance to then-current practices in conceptual and minimalist genres, the Neue Wilde gave start to the careers of such luminaries as Martin Kippenberger, Jörg Immendorf, Rainer Fetting, Salomé (Wolfgang Ludwig Cihlarz), Leiko Ikemura, and Albert Oehlen. Since then, Albert Oehlen has dripped, smeared, washed and pasted his way into bad painting prominence.
Knowing Oehlen's work from afar (having seen pieces at art fairs and in museums), I walked into Galerie Nathalie Obadia expecting to be engulfed in the miasma of Oehlen's foggy washes and muddied messes, the slash and gore of his abstractions.
Instead, upon entering the gallery I was confronted with large-scale collages, cut and arranged fragments from Spanish and German publicity overlaid on occasion with painted moments. Grandly assembled and displayed, the hushed atmosphere and exquisite gallery lighting promoting the importance and value of these new works, I walked from one piece to the next trying to unravel the messages, the brilliant word-play or conceptual linkages that must be built into these assemblages. Clowns, freaks, rock stars, models, electronics, car wheels, industrial tools, perfume, socks, words, nature and art historical scraps - scenes from an ordinary life, snatches of imagery seen during any bus ride down a city street - filled the walls.
I noticed the expanses of almost pristine paper or canvas living between these publicity arrangements; the ad fragments just barely attached so that edges peel away from the underneath surface, architected into balanced structures wherein one image mocks or teases against another. I fixated on the Oehlen signature holding forth at the bottom corners of some pieces - weighty. These are considered productions, I thought, obviously not the random quick-draw creations of school-age children asked to make a picture from magazine clippings. I looked for relationships and meaning, wanting more, waiting for more. All I could come up with was a flatness, a glossy-surfaced nothingness that seemed to emanate from these behemoths. Sure, there was an occasional connection between shapes, an echo of ideas, but nothing more exciting than that.
And then I focused in on the Oehlen gesture, the washes and drips, the sluicing slashes of paint floating on top of some of these works. Here was the Painting, the capital P-painting, that justified the presence of these pieces against these walls. Commanding and comforting, I saw how the paint served to reify the images of the multimaster drill or the perfume bottle. Ad became art; art became ad. I noticed how my eye hung on to the painted portions getting pleasure from the color and inherent energy in the drips and flings. I watched how I began to enjoy the experience simply because there was the aura of painting here and there. I was being seduced, ameliorated by Art.
I walked into the side gallery and came upon Saturn, holding the room by itself. Built upon a poster featuring rows of Saturn employees in their uniforms, this painting unnerved me. I studied it. How vulnerable and almost pathetic these employees look, smiling courageously despite the certain knowledge that they are nothing but blue-shirted pawns serving up the corporate fantasy of one big, happy family. "Clowns! Freaks!," the poster seemed to yell. And then on top of it, Oehlen seems to almost attack the images, their faces, by violently flinging and obliterating with his brush, compounding their humiliation with his painterly smears and almost sexual pourings. I almost cringe in embarrassed silence as I consider these faithful employees and the frame for which they have volunteered. I picture the easy camaderie of the office setting, the cars and coffee rooms and time clocks that mark their days, and wonder if they mind being used by Saturn and then used again by Oehlen. Maybe they got paid twice?
As I walk out of the gallery I glance once more at the large painting on my right. Hovering just under the paint's surface, the words The Blind Cow, seem to mock me. "Is that what it says?" I ask myself as I look again. "That's way too obvious," I decide, and wander over to Café Beaubourg, order a sweet nothing and munch contentedly as I stare into the gray afternoon.
(Images: Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 2008, collage, 200x150cm; Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 2008, collage, 206x156 cm; Albert Oehlen, Saturn, 2008, collage, 210x270cm; Albert Oehlen, Chloe, 2008, collage, 270x300cm. Courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris)