This work typifies Oehlen’s 1980s approach to self-portraiture, demonstrating the manner in which he inverted the traditional idealism of the trope and ruthlessly satirised its historic practitioners. In Oehlen’s own words: “I never took figurative work seriously, even when I did it. I thought it was bullshit. The early self-portraits are highly ironic” (Albert Oehlen cited in: Jennifer Samet, ‘Beer with a Painter: Albert Oehlen’, Hyperallergic, April 2017, online). Thus, in the present work, Oehlen identifies with art-historical mores in order to undermine and ridicule them. He shows himself in typical classical semi-profile pose and cropped to bust format, but with an intentionally warped visage: misshapen uneven eyes, thick stubble, and lank hair; carefully modelled flesh is replaced with brown paint smeared down the cheeks, and the traditional silk curtain backdrop is swapped out for a chain link fence more apt for post-war Berlin. Oehlen built upon the foundations of sardonic mockery established in this work and made his subsequent self-portraits even more self-deprecatory: he painted himself clutching a skull and holding a painter’s palette in bathetic parody of the classic Vanitas composition, and as a rutting stag in ironic imitation of neo-Expressionist painters like Helmut Middendorf, who were commonly held to be testosterone fuelled alpha-artists. The cynical subversion reached its peak in Self-Portrait with Shitty Underpants and Blue Mauritius, which marks the nadir of the artist’s depictions of himself. The inclusion of the ‘Blue Mauritius’ postage stamp in this painting – which at the time was famous for its incredible value as a collector’s item – introduces a thinly veiled critique of the sky rocketing art market of 1980s Germany.
By pasting a mirror onto his canvas, Oehlen further identifies this work with art-history. The mirror as symbol recalls allegories of Vanity in renderings of classical mythology, and the story of Narcissus. Meanwhile the mirror as object mocks and emphasises the vanity of the traditional artist’s self-portrait process by abbreviating it: where other artists looked from mirror to canvas and back, aiming to reproduce their image, Oehlen paints directly over his mirror, spoofing the diligence of his predecessor’s process and undermining their integrity. We wonder: if Albrecht Dürer had made his self-portraits like this, would he have looked so pretty? Oehlen also uses the mirror in this work as a clever compositional device that includes the viewer in the composition. He crudely repeats the trick of the curved mirror at the back of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, and brashly imitates the vast mirror behind the bar in Edouard Manet’s Bar aux Folies Bergère: his mirror extends the spectre of the work out into the gallery space and makes the viewer both subject and object. In this way, Oehlen not only satirises the artists of history who self-aggrandised their image with idealised portraits, but also appears to lampoon the art viewer – implying the vanity of their connoisseurship and subtly questioning the motives behind their gaze. The mirrors in Oehlen’s paintings are, above all, a device with which he examines the limits of his chosen medium. His mirrors are not just reflections of reality but also reflections of painting: “a mirror image and a painting show comparable views of duplicated nature – like a painting with a central perspective, a mirror reproduces three-dimensional objects with the help of light and shadow, but without rendering them graspable” (Katia Hesch, op. cit., p. 29).
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