The New Museum’s exhibition of Albert Oehlen’s muddy paintings of ectoplasmic chaos is obscure, plodding, and irritating, yet it can be difficult to identify the exact sources of this artist’s premeditated vexations. One clue lies in the German’s admiration for the counterculture’s favorite musical satirist: He self-identifies as the Frank Zappa of painters. Like many of the Mothers of Invention ringleader’s high-concept albums, Oehlen’s far-out canvases haven’t aged well. Today neither would seem out of place in a Williamsburg novelty shop alongside gag gifts, scented soaps, and hand-painted signs that say “Bless This Mess.”
It’s odd to begin a review with a confession, but I wish I liked Albert Oehlen’s paintings more. There’s a lot to admire: his stubborn defense of painting during the hidebound conceptualist 1970s; his penchant for excess as a visceral reaction to serial outbreaks of cultural constipation; the frankly improvisatory nature of his work and his admitted reliance on crassness to bulldoze through art’s prissier prohibitions. But there’s also an unavoidable nails-on-chalkboard screech to these fussbudget canvases. Despite the rowdy entertainments therein, navigating a roomful of Oehlen’s paintings can feel like being stuck in an elevator with Zappa’s Jazz From Hell playing on endless repeat.
Those who like their art with a large helping of ironic reverb will find much to love in this tidy show of 26 paintings by the 61-year-old faux-expressionist. Titled “Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden,” the exhibition provides a neat précis of the artist’s lengthy career (the works date from 1983 to 2011) while offering a glimpse of key artistic developments that occurred in Germany between the triumph of American culture, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the rudderless Love Parade that ensued.
Part of a second wave of German painters that trailed better-known figures like Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Jörg Immendorff into the conceptual-art breach, Oehlen became best known early on as a nerdy Garth to Martin Kippenberger’s raucous Wayne. The pair spent much of the 1970s and ’80s enacting Germany’s brush-and-canvas version of a “Bohemian Rhapsody” flail. Together they climbed on tables and pulled down their pants in front of adults while, according to Oehlen, “making asses of ourselves and making everyone hate us.” Eventually both art delinquents stumbled upon their own bumptious versions of “bad painting.” Kippenberger, a terminal narcissist until his death in 1997 at age 44, elevated his monumental insincerity into self-portraiture. Oehlen, ever the wingman, turned to abstraction to launch a mock-serious raft of attacks on painting as a convention.
The purveyor of a “sham Expressionism” (in the words of critic Hal Foster), Oehlen has cultivated a deliberate practice of lackluster, ham-fisted work on canvas ever since declaring, on a 1988 trip to Spain, his intention to be a failed painter. A dilettantish approach that has invariably come to be seen as masterful — like politicians and whores, painting styles gain respectability simply by being around long enough — Oehlen’s example has more recently exerted widespread influence on younger generations of art slackers. Painting culture, it appears, was long ready for its lip-sync battle. Before formalist “zombie” abstraction, the impulse to paint shoddily feasted on a vast menu of cultural antecedents (Ennio Morricone instrumentals and kung fu films among them). In our bandwagon-jumping age, all it takes is one Quentin Tarantino type to collapse the gap between copycat kitsch and “bad art” that truly ventures something.
At the New Museum, Oehlen’s earliest and ugliest abstract paintings date from the period between 1988 and 1992. Though all of these works are untitled, the artist has described them as “post–non-objective paintings,” using contrived artspeak to ironize about their mix of abstract and representational motifs (the term “non-objective” is a common synonym for abstraction). Several such canvases contain traces of figuration — including eyes, cartoonish faces, body parts, and symbols — often layered in thin brushstrokes atop dark, muddy grounds. Rather than look spontaneous, his paintings resemble a watery gumbo. “Basically,” he told one interviewer, “the word ‘abstract’ for me should be something like degenerate, perverted, unfinished, turned out badly.”
According to a catalog essay by the show’s curator, New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni, Oehlen has long strived to become, above everything else, “as stupid as a painter.” A phrase drawn from the anti-retinal quiver of proto-conceptualist Marcel Duchamp, this rhetorical arrow has pointed the way forward (or back, depending on your own estimation of the results) for the artist’s entire production. His wan black-and-white “computer paintings,” for instance, pioneered the use of Texas Instruments drawing software to “paint” and silkscreen pixelated marks onto large canvases. Similarly, his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink “switch-paintings” indiscriminately layer inkjet scribbles, silkscreen, spray paint, and bits of brushwork to achieve toxic-looking paint pools the artist has dubbed “electric mud.” Talk about truth in advertising! Tellingly, Oehlen’s love of studied daftness hasn’t deterred him from reaching for formalist painting’s ultimate scale: corporate-lobby large.
Art critics have made big, unsubstantiated claims for Oehlen’s paintings since this show opened a month ago — that he is painting’s heavyweight champion for the Instagram age, and, more absurdly, that he is the foremost painter of an era that saw the medium decline inexorably. On the evidence of this dreary exhibition, it’s all hogwash. Dumb and dumber are no way to revive painting as a self-reflexive medium. As Frank Zappa said, there is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe. But that doesn’t mean it’s right to call it oxygen.
‘Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden’
Through September 13