Raucous in palette and imposing in scale, Albert Oehlen’s Flute and a Bell from 1999 is a rebelliously robust work that deftly captures the artist’s idiosyncratic painterly practice. In this energetic and visually complex composition of color and movement, nomadic abstract shapes and lines dance dynamically across the canvas in every direction, and paint drips both horizontally and vertically, creating a work that is as dizzying as it is hypnotic. Soft washes of peach and umber belie tropic flashes of vermilion, tangerine, and cerulean, while striated grids overlap with nebulous forms. Pushing his chosen medium past its historical connotations to its breaking point, Oehlen at once challenges, examines, and revitalizes painting in a post-painting world. With its mesmerizing cacophony of disparate elements, Flute and a Bell captures the cataclysmic euphoria that characterizes the artist’s signature visual lexicon.
Overflowing with expressivity, vibrating brushstrokes, and experimental arrangements of form, the present work is an essay on the process of painting as a subject in its own right. Reminiscent of Willem de Kooning in his works of linear movement and sumptuous color, while simultaneously evoking the layering techniques of contemporaries such as Christopher Wool, the present work sits within a period of radical experimentation when Oehlen constantly pushed and redefined the boundaries of the medium. Flute and a Bell engages in a vivid dialogue with twentieth-century abstraction, referencing the gestural exuberance of Abstract Expressionism while also alluding to the geometric patterns of European Modernism. A student of Sigmar Polke’s subversive approach to image-making, Oehlen’s cerebral and dissident art thrives off contradiction, and the present work, like his strongest canvases, synthesizes myriad influences into a composition that is at once challenging and alluring.
Music, another key influence in Oehlen’s oeuvre, is reflected in the present work’s title, Flute and a Bell. Alongside his German contemporary Martin Kippenberger, Oehlen was often associated with the punk scene of the 1980s. In the 1990s, he briefly ran his own independent music label, Leiterwagen, putting out experimental electronica, and worked with psychedelic rock bands Red Krayola and Van Oehlen. A fan of acid house and techno, it is perhaps free jazz that provides the best metaphor for his style of work. “I see it this way: it’s the confluence of earnestness and ridiculousness that allows the artist to run riot,” he has said. “It’s comparable to a classic jazz soloist. He runs riot within his harmony and stretches it as far as it can go.” (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, New Museum, Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden, 2015, p. 102) The present work’s streaks and plumes of paint have an almost musical quality, as each colorful note emerges from the canvas in an elaborate clash of dissonance and melody.
Thus epitomizing Oehlen’s radical mode of painterly abstraction, Flute and a Bell is a canvas on which motifs and themes play hide-and-seek behind layers of references. Fluent in an illogical yet paradoxically balanced artistic expression, Oehlen has strongly critiqued the theory of painting by eschewing its recognizable practices and subjects in favor of a volatile and anti-artistic style. The highly-charged dissonance of form and color is actually the product of a deliberate working method, in which each drip, smear, and stroke is elegantly choreographed into an idealized vision of chaos. The luminous elemental hues and clashing marks and shapes create a vigorous confrontation of past and present, a sort of painterly primordial stew from which Oehlen intends to bring forth the future of his medium. As Flute and a Bell deftly conveys, Oehlen’s chimeric, unsettling and invigorating body of work ultimately aims to reimagine and redefine the beauty of paint.
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