Painting is the zombie of the art world, and artists deal with this fact in two ways: they either run screaming towards other media, or embrace its exhausting tradition, accept the impossibility of killing it completely, and make work with the irreverent openness and plurality that it demands. Albert Oehlen has affection for the latter, having synthesized expressionism, abstraction, and collage with orphic, digital and typographic influences and appropriations in his long career.
Emerging in the late 1970s as part of the Neue Wilde painters, the lush German Neo-Expressionism movement that included Martin Kippenberger, Oehlen has since been prolific with his explorations of painting and other media, often being described as "rebellious," and notably, "the most resourceful abstract painter alive," by critic Peter Schjeldahl in the The New Yorker.
Oehlen isn’t shy about stating some of the historical resources directly, specifically fellow paint lover, Willem de Kooning. In “Painthing on the Möve," Oehlen's latest work takes a contemporary spin on Abstract Expressionism in sister shows at Chicago’s Corbett vs. Dempsey and Thomas Dane Gallery in London. Additionally, an exhibition of Chicago Imagists is on display at Thomas Dane's second location, co-curated by Corbett, Dempsey and Oehlen. (A catalog with images from all of the shows is available for those of us that can’t jet set overseas.)
Albert Oehlen. Untitled. 2010. Paper, ink and pencil on paper. 11.75" x 8.25". Image courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey and the artist.
Stateside in Chicago, “Painthing on the Möve” announces itself on a rainbow billboard outside the gallery on Ashland Avenue. Two of Oehlen’s monochrome, charcoal and acrylic paintings face each other in the airy gallery space, the larger one measuring nearly seven by nine feet (82.75” x 106.25”). Smaller ink, paper and pencil works on paper comprise the rest of the show. These ten collages dot the exposed brick walls with black and white tangles, that individually demand a lot of looking, but reward the eye with striking compositions of sharp and soft gestural lines and parts of the artist’s source material, never fully recognizable. Energetic but often deliberately fractured, they call to mind Wassily Kandinsky’s explosive abstractions, but Oehlen swaps line for color as the musical force within each piece.
Everything on display, in fact, is part of Oehlen’s Conduction series, taking its name from structured improvisations by jazz composer and musician Lawrence “Butch” Morris. Also a musician himself, Oehlen's 2009 show, "A Vanguard with Decorum" at Corbett vs. Dempsey, was partially inspired by Sun Ra's synthesizer compositions. Hints of what might be unwound music staffs and a partial clef join loops and scribbles on white ground. Page numbers, truncated text, picture frames and in one instance an interior floor plan meld with sketchy hatching. Like a staccato note, what looks like a thick bow of a string bass cuts through one of the large paintings, Conduction 11. Shades of Oehlen's pixelated, graphic "computer paintings," begun in the 1990s with motifs created in an early laptop program, also appear throughout the show.
Seemingly made by enlarging areas of the tightly wound collages, the large canvases give Oehlen's lines room to breathe and further the focus on linear gesture. Less intimate than the rest, Conduction 4 has only one area of structure that sits faded and dissipating, behind bold, non-objective lines. Many of those lines trail off like smoke, keeping a distance from a too-clean aesthetic, and letting Oehlen's spray paint and charcoal, a punk rock version of Ab-Ex's drips and splashes, show themselves proudly and remind that even if painting was dead, now it’s up and walking.
-Mia DiMeo, ArtSlant Staff Writer