Hans Werner Holzwarth, Ed., Albert Oehlen, Cologne 2017, p. 157, illustrated in colour
In this energetic composition, we are lured into a canvas of nomadic abstract shapes and lines that dance dynamically against a muddy monochromatic backdrop. A shadowy emblem of an inverted faceless visage lies hidden beneath the vibrant and colourful abstract composition. In spite of these seemingly opposed elements, the work remains coherent, as the figurative and the abstract come together in a solution to the art historical battle between both parties.
Oehlen’s work is thus a commentary on the absurdity of pitting abstraction against figuration; instead, Oehlen relocates their conceptual place within art history as mutable and dependent. After all, and as curator Fabrice Hergott has argued, even our senses are susceptible to these interdependent terms, for “the eye ‘figures’ to see, but at the very moment the eye perceives an object, it abstracts it, placing it within a spatial, cultural and affective structure which is, quite simply memory” (Fabrice Hergott, ‘The Silent Hand’, in: Burkhard Riemschneider, Ed., Albert Oehlen, Cologne 1995, p. 37).
In a style reminiscent of Willem de Kooning and of Georg Baselitz, Oehlen’s Untitled plays with the boundaries of the canvas’ space and surface; not only through the execution of porous and competing concepts, but also through the variation of geometric perspective. During the work’s execution, the canvas had been repeatedly rotated, unrestrained by a single position, and framed across multivalent axes. Shapes zoom across all directions and an upside down head underpins the work. Oehlen exploits every possible orientation, dislocating and relocating elements, as figures and forms fall in various directions and into their own parallel centres of gravity.
In this madness, we are left with a work that makes no attempt to apply meaning to practice, motif or figure. The frenzied space of the canvas is instead the stage on which Oehlen tests the formal notions of paint and liberates painting itself. Untitled pushes against the confines of tradition and purism, and is unrestrained even in its medium of choice: oil paint. Celebrating rawness and spontaneity, Oehlen later declared: “the reason why I went to oil was mainly because I didn’t control it. I was looking for the insecurity of it” (Albert Oehlen, quoted in Glenn O’Brien, ‘Albert Oehlen,’ Interview Magazine, 24 April 2009, online).
In its imposing scale, Untitled is a canvas on which motifs and themes play hide-and-seek behind layers of abstraction. Fluent in an illogical yet paradoxically balanced painterly expression, Oehlen has strongly critiqued the theory of painting by eschewing its recognisable forms and subjects in favour of a volatile and anti-artistic style. As Untitled deftly conveys, Oehlen has put forth a body of work that ultimately reimagines and redefines the beauty of paint.
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