Oehlen turned to abstract paintings in 1989, after a year spent in Spain with Martin Kippenberger, and recalls that with figuration “It just seemed obvious that there was nothing to win. I still don’t think that if you paint a person you can transmit something about that person. I don’t think you can communicate something about an experience or a situation” (Albert Oehlen cited in: Jenifer Samet, ‘Beer with a Painter: Albert Oehlen’, Hyperallergic, 8 April 2017, online). Abstraction, however, provides an arena for play in which he can set his own parameters of baroque complexity, visual pollution and painterly ad-libbing. Here, he is free to try “to get as far away from meaning as possible, which is perhaps the most difficult thing of all” (Albert Oehlen cited in: Sean O’Hagan, ‘Albert Oehlen: “There’s something hysterical about magenta”’, The Guardian, 5 February 2016, online).
Oehlen’s use of a patterned fabric ground also gestures to the work of the eminent radical Sigmar Polke, who taught him at Hamburg’s University of Fine Arts in 1978. Polke painted on cheap, chintzy fabrics as part of his ‘Capitalist Realist’ critique of bourgeois consumerism, bringing down painting from its refined support of canvas to the kitsch everyday surfaces of middle class West Germany. Oehlen’s printed patterns play a less political role, and can be seen as part of a wider campaign to dethrone painting from its long-held cultural position of high seriousness and grand significance.
Although Oehlen has often been associated with the Neue Wilde painters of the 1980s, the artist has explicitly denounced such a suggestion, instead preferring a more conceptual approach. His expansive investigations into the medium have resulted in a wide range of painterly strategies, varying from the appropriation of advertising images, to the incorporation of digitally-generated pictures, in an attempt to create deliberately ‘bad’ paintings that echo his contemporary and friend, Martin Kippenberger’s approach. Oehlen is by no means the master of a single style, and Etwas auf Herz oder Leder is an homage to this.
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