John Graham was an artist and curator in New York in the mid-Twentieth Century. Although he was well known in New York during his own lifetime, he died in 1961 and quickly fell into obscurity. Oehlen first became interested in Graham as the man who ‘discovered’ Jackson Pollock; he was fascinated by the way that Graham was the more urbane, more sophisticated, and more varied artist – Pollock was almost brutish by comparison – and yet Pollock was the one anointed by the establishment and remembered in history because he made a handful of true masterpieces. Even after only thirty years, nothing else mattered: “I think what’s interesting is the difference of the one guy who knows so much and is full of ideas but can’t really make an interesting work – and the other one who is half stupid, and just does it” (Albert Oehlen in conversation with Glenn O’Brien and Christopher Wool, ‘Albert Oehlen', Interview Magazine, April 2009, online). So with a pseudo-righteous sense of historic justice, Oehlen took up Graham’s mantle. His interest in the elder artist piqued when he came across a work called Tramonto Spaventoso – Terrible Sunset: “It was reproduced in black and white and it fascinated me immediately, I didn’t understand it at all. I found it ugly and at the same time a vehicle for endless interpretation” (Albert Oehlen cited in: John Corbett, ‘Terrible Sunset: Albert Oehlen’s John Graham Remixes’ in: Hans Werner Holzwarth, Ed., Albert Oehlen, Cologne 2009, p. 361).
Tramonto Spaventoso thus became the focal point for the entirety of the subsequent John Graham Remix series: more than twenty-five large scale paintings and a number of fully realised works on paper were extrapolated from Graham’s meagre forms. Each of these work features a likeness of Graham’s stylised self-portrait, an interpretation of the ‘H’ in the upper right hand corner, and some allusion either to the stylized sun figures, the triad of kicking legs in the lower-left that feel vaguely akin to a Swastika, or the mermaid of the bottom right. For example, in Die Badenden, Graham’s likeness is abstracted and refracted almost beyond the point of recognition: we recognise him only through twinned hot discs of eye and ear, and the elongated curve of his moustache. The crooked ‘J’ shape that defines Graham’s nose in Tramoto Spaventoso is repeated in the present work, and also inverted and enlarged in blue to create the focal point of the left canvas. Oehlen also presents a riff on the mermaid figure. However, where mermaids generally have fish tails instead of legs, this partially obscured figure is curtailed in a purple phallus and scrotum, which send out ripples in an untethered pool.
Like repeating a word again and again until it seems totally divorced from its meaning, Oehlen used Graham’s Tramonto Spaventoso as a prism through which he could examine the practice of painting itself. He recreated its forms on paper and on canvas, using acrylic, watercolour, spray paint, and oils; he filtered them through digital remodelling computer programmes, and in one example projected them upon a Gerhard Richter-esque colour chart. The series can thus be understood, on one level, as an intensive, exhaustive, and multi-faceted investigation into the anatomy of an earlier artwork: “In these paintings, Oehlen examines the Graham deeply by bringing its elements into his own sphere of influence, subjecting them to the Oehlen treatment, making them look and feel at home in an Oehlen painting. Just as Oehlen’s computer print-out paintings make something Oehlen out of materials that seem, at face, to be very un-Oehlen – linear mechanistic, colourless, inorganic – the initial Graham obsession led the artist to internalize the object of his fascination, rendering it in his own style” (John Corbett cited in: ibid. p. 346).
Oehlen is an artist deeply involved and dependent on music: he was involved with punk bands in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he is an avowed fan of Jazz with a special soft spot for the artist Sun Ra, and he has even aped the creativity tricks of celebrated musician Brian Eno in order to push his painterly practice to new heights. As such it is significant to note the nomenclature of the present series. Oehlen specifices that these paintings are remixes of Graham’s precedent, not inspirations by or reworkings after: “In all cases, Oehlen’s use of the Graham work reflects an intimate understanding of the art of the remix. An original exists, in dub reggae and techno alike, not only to be adored and enjoyed, but to be messed up, to be altered, to be smoothed over and zoned out and ridiculed and made into something completely different from – maybe at odds with – its former self. If there is anything to be learned from an obsessive relationship, it is not only through revering the object, loving and stroking and protecting it, but by breaking it down and remaking it. For an underachiever like Graham, the Oehlen remix may eventually turn out to be his biggest hit” (Ibid. p. 347).
Die Badenden is not only an extraordinary abstract painting of dazzling aesthetic and epic scale, but also, typically for Oehlen, a noteworthy example of a clearly defined conceptual endeavour: an attempt to drill into the building blocks of a preclusive historic artwork, an earnest effort to extend and explore the limits of the genre of painting, and a sincere attempt to transmute the emphases of music into his work. The effect is mesmeric: "Oehlen tries to do with painting what others (Coltrane, Zappa) have attempted in jazz or rock: to immerse the listener in a burst of overlapping, saturated and expansive strata, getting rid of any story-line since there is no beginning nor end. This all thrusts forward, like in a cathode with a tremendous current. A kind of machine that transforms signs into intensities… Oehlen’s painting-machine is a mixer that flings objects, images and traces into outer space” (Pierre Sterckx, ‘Albert Oehlen: Junk Screens’ in: Exh. Cat., FRAC: Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain Auvergne, Albert Oehlen, 2005, n.p.).
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