During the week of Frieze Art Fair, London was inundated with great exhibitions. Not only in the fair itself (including Frieze Masters, always a treat): a number of fine museum shows, like William Blake at Tate Britain, were in evidence as well. As might be expected, many galleries too stepped up with substantial solo and group exhibitions. Mark Bradford at Hauser & Wirth and Cy Twombly’s sculptures at Gagosian both stood out. Despite uncertainty over an increasingly toxic and inevitably unwise Brexit, galleries continue move into Mayfair, populating a part of town that for centuries has been identified with money, status, and power. In all this activity, Albert Oehlen’s work is well represented. Max Hetzler is presenting the painter’s Spiegelbilder (1982-1990), while Lévy Gorvy features a selection of his work in Run The Wild: Oehlen | West | Wool, and, finally, the Serpentine Gallery has mounted an impressive retrospective look at Oehlen’s practice. So, apart from anything else, it was a good time for any fan of Oehlen, or of painting in general, to be in town.
On ViewSerpentine Gallery
October 2, 2019 – February 2, 2020
The Serpentine exhibition is extraordinary. This show highlights Oehlen’s ongoing engagement with both the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas and the Kiev-born American artist John D. Graham ‘s painting Tramonto Spaventoso (‘Terrifying Sunset’) from 1940–49. In the high-vaulted central gallery space of the Serpentine Gallery—around which smaller adjoining spaces provide views out onto the park—are a group of canvases scaled to match Rothko’s horizontal paintings in the Houston chapel. The paintings on view here, executed between the late 1970s and the 2000s, are known collectively as the John Graham Remix series. The persistence of this interest in Graham’s painting represents Oehlen’s conviction that Surrealism was a crucial but underappreciated idea in the evolution of painting. He does not, like his friend Christopher Wool, see Surrealism as a spent force or a period manifestation, more rooted in literature than visual art.
Oehlen has remarked that he grew tired of turpentine fumes in his studio in Spain—he has used large quantities of the substance to thin oils for transparent colored washes or erase sections of his compositions. Consequently, Oehlen used either charcoal or watercolor on canvas to create the images we see in these new paintings. Various motifs, particularly a mustachioed and monocled face and a female mermaid figure, are drawn from Tramonto Spaventoso, appearing and reappearing in diverse nuanced guises. In the original painting , Graham would seem to present the mustachioed face as a self portrait, a kind of crazed alter ego, and we might imagine this act of self portraiture extending to include Oehlen as well.
The large paintings occupying the Serpentine’s central space are each made up of multiple panels. In one work, however, the three discrete panels are each titled individually: never sleep again (2019), at the steering wheel a man is a man (2019) and starter-turn me on (2019). In the left panel a profiled head is buzzed by four small, identical faces, again derived from Tramonto Spaventoso, that hover like manic cherubs. The image recalls the Joan Miro of the 1930s: ascetic, surreal, and disturbingly humorous. The next two panels are in watercolor, a medium amazing to encounter at this size (the overall dimensions of this work are 364.5 by 624.3 centimeters). A mustachioed head reappears again in the middle panel and a female figure, the equivalent of Graham’s mermaid, is found in the right side panel. Everything is fluid, curved or flowing. Sexuality is framed as compulsion, whether to ogle or to follow blind impulse like a speeding car—pointless, playful, inevitable, a challenge to orderly culture; rationality made vulnerable to atomizing fits of laughter. The older paintings on view here also engage Graham’s imagery, although it is always transformed by Oehlen’s particular visual language. They show, over many years, the frequency with which Oehlen abruptly changes course in his oeuvre, which runs the gamut from amateurish to virtuoso in execution (often within the same painting, by the way).
Recordings from the avant-garde band Steamboat Switzerland are played intermittently in the gallery—Oehlen has long been intensely interested in music and is an admirer of Steamboat. He feels there are sure affinities between the composition and reception of music and that of painting. Although he plays off the layout of Rothko’s meditative chapel installation, Oehlen ultimately works from a different direction entirely. Rather than austere abstraction, he uses noise and disjunctive imagery, a rather dissimilar sensory stimulus that can nonetheless also induce trance-like mental states. This no-rules approach comes as little surprise from an artist who cites Salvador Dali’s autobiographic The Secret Life as an underappreciated and, for him personally, formative text. The Serpentine exhibition successfully reveals a single narrative thread drawn through decades of Oehlen’s painting. However, in its provocative and serious take on a spiritual site of reverence for 20th Century abstract painting, the installation also has broader relevance, and speaks to the general nature of aesthetic experience.