Albert Oehlen: Tramonto Spaventoso
Gagosian Gallery, Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles
June 10 through August 7, 2021
By LITA BARRIE, July 2021
What happens when a virtouso painter steeped in art history and aesthetic philosophy rejects virtuosity as too easy and challenges himself to make the worst paintings he can?
This is the fascinating trajectory of enfant terrible, Albert Oehlen. Today he is one of the most respected artists in the world, and yet he first came to fame in the late 1980s by making deliberately bad paintings, particularly a tender portrait of Adolf Hitler, as a result of a dare with his “bad boys” contemporaries Martin Kippenberger and Werner Buttner in Cologne.
Oehlen’s perplexing paintings are as much fun to view as they are for him to make because he is playing a game with the viewer. In spite of himself, while trying to paint badly, clumsily, coarsely and amateurishly, Oehlen cannot help but create stunningly beautiful paintings because, to quote John Lee Hooker, “It’s in him and it got to come out.” Only an artist with a deep understanding of art history and extraordinary aesthetic skills could have so much fun taking the piss out of the snobbery of art pretension. As Dave Hickey says “Bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege.”
The current exhibition at Gagosian’s new location at Marciano Art Foundation takes its title from John Graham’s painting, Tramonto Spaventoso (Terrifying Sunset ,1940-1941). For 30 years, Oehlen has riffed and remixed motifs from this baffling painting that he initially found by chance in a book by Dore Ashton, then later purchased. Graham had influenced abstract expressionists, especially William De Kooning and Jackson Pollock, because he was so knowledgeable about art, although he was never known as an artist. This painting has obsessed Oehlen because it is a puzzle that cannot be understood and it is so stunningly bad.
Oehlen is as steeped in music as he is steeped in art and approaches painting through the lens of music. Like a great jazz musician doing a Broadway riff-off Oehlen is an adept and refers to Graham’s painting as a “vehicle for endless interpretations.” He uses the bizarre visual motifs as “a toolbox”: the man with a Daliesque, handlebar moustache in a pilot’s hat and googles (possibly a self-portrait), the letter ‘H”, Roman and Russian writing, running suns, cross-eyed ladies, triangular swastikas with three arms, lines, a wooden bar and a mermaid. The original Graham painting might even be unfinished; Oehlen’s remixes have never stopped raising unanswerable questions, because if there is a point, it is “the fun of not understanding.”
Oehlen’s “reaction paintings” reveal the ghosts of his American abstract expresssionist predecessors and German neo-expressionist mentors whose artistic vocabularities resurface and recede. Oehlen incorporates post-cubist spatial displacement and oscillates between figuration and abstraction with a surrealist flair for absurdity. Interestingly, he considers Surrealism “ the most interesting art style of the past century” and although he dismisses the manifesto on dreams and the unconscious he riffs off the absurdist elements epitomized by Salvador Dali.
Much like a DJ who creates something wonderful from combining a cheesy song with a classic, Oehlen remixes John Graham motifs to play off the layout of Rothko Chapel in Texas, Houston. The first four of these paintings were first shown at Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens (October 2019 - February 2020) and the second four were exhibited at Gagosian in Beverly Hills (April - June 2021.) For the first time, this series of eight paintings is being presented in its entirety. Within the Grand Theater gallery inside the refurbished landmark Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, the paintings are installed in a custom-built octagonal structure with the same dimensions as the Rothko Chapel. These wildly extravagant paintings are scaled to match Rothko’s austere paintings because Oehlen is interested in extending the internal logics of his paintings to the sites in which they are exhibited.
Could a chapel be noisy and yet meditative? Oehlen’s paintings and installation raise this question to upturn the pre-conception of a chapel as a quiet place. Oehlen commissioned music by Steamboat Switzerland, the jazz ensemble he collaborated with at the Serpentine Galleries, and this soundtrack is played intermittently throughout the day to draw further connections with Oehlen’s visual strategies.
Unlike Rothko’s minimalist black paintings which require prolonged contemplation to see the subtle gradations in tone and texture, Oehlen explores an aesthetic of excess, with an overload of symbols in frenetic paintings with high velocity brush strokes applied with different brush widths. In one collaged painting, Oehlen uses chintzy floral fabric as a nod to his mentor Sigmar Polke, but it covers the mustachioed face in a gesture to an image of flamboyant performance artist Leigh Bowery.
Could a charcoal drawing be a painting? Charcoal drawings are usually small and made on paper as preparatory minor works for major paintings. But Oehlen turns this traditional hierarchy on its face by using charcoal watered down to create gray areas on gessoed canvases. He references Konrad Klapcheck who made charcoal sketches the same size as paintings, but instead of leaving evidence of his corrections, he cleans, erases and edits his mistakes to finish them like an organized, controlled painting.
Oehlen abandons oil paint and turpentine which are the usual materials for large paintings because he says he did not like the fumes. Instead, he uses acrylic watered down to create a wash effect - almost like watercolors, which are usually small, made on paper and seen behind glass, like charcoal drawings. The transparency of this delicate color creates more depth and opens the pictorial space.The monumental size of his canvases, which are 40 feet tall, allows the viewer to feel immersed inside the paintings - just as Oehlen was immersed when he made them. Oehlen begins by painting on the floor of his studio, but then the canvases are lifted onto the wall with scaffolding and he completes the works on a ladder. This complete immersion is more fun for the artist, and he shares this with the viewer.
Everywhere the viewer’s eye moves, it finds things to engage it, but this never adds up to a coherent reading. These paintings are a game of who is looking at who, and why. Sometimes the mustachioed male character is seen ogling the mermaid’s breasts, but in other paintings, she ogles him back. Sometimes he only has one eye or bulging eyes to satirize the male gaze and voyeurism which makes compulsive sexuality seem like a pointless, blind impulse. The mermaid reappears as an aggressive predator weilding a weapon. The graphic moves into the picturesque and vice versa with unrelenting energy.
Oehlen insists that “ art is made from art.” Although he is irreverent toward the conventions that inscribe painting, he also recognizes the impossibility of working without them - even in a reaction against them. Oehlen uses this paradox to turn his painting process into a humorous critique of itself that satirizes its own modus operandi. WM
Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.view all articles from this author