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Painting Freedom – Albert Oehlen review

Painting Freedom – Albert Oehlen review

As a painter in today’s cacophony of visual possibilities, where would l start if l was trying to build a perfect painting practice and what would such a practice look like?  Especially if I wanted to leave myself and the viewer guessing what l was going to paint.


When I looked at Albert Oehlen paintings I wondered where he started.  Looking at his paintings in his latest show at the Serpentine, London, it is hard to imagine how he ended up here.  Albert Oehlen’s paintings have moved past his previous discord into the beauty in the conflict and almost defy categorisation.  I realise that Albert Oehlen has taken one small painting stroke for man, and one giant excessive leap of hysteria for mankind.


Albert Oehlen was born in 1954 in Krefeld, Germany.  He studied at Hochschule für Bildende Künste, in Hamburg, under the guidance of painter, Sigmar Polke.  Oehlen has been an important character in contemporary art since the 1980s his work has been selected for public collections around the world.  The work for this particular exhibition is inspired by the American Modernist figurative painter John Graham and his painting ‘Tramonto Spaventoso’ (1940-49). The English translation is Terrifying Sunset.

Albert Oehlen, art exhibition london, stuart bush, contemporary artist

©Albert Oehlen, 120 km/h 1998 oil on canvas, all rights remain with the artist

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After I had eaten the first two rooms of delirious gibberish.  I made it through to his messy cross-reference of texture and incredible colour.  I couldn’t decide if I had just tasted refined beauty or eaten the worse thing in my life?  All I know is I was certainly entertained, Oehlen throws everything, including the kitchen sink, into his paintings.


In Albert Oehlen’s paintings, he takes on the meaning of freedom by focusing on what is disagreeable in our visual culture.  And then; he turns the volume control up to a hundred per cent.  Oehlen creates a restless edginess of painting possibilities, free of rules and restraints.


Oehlen as an artist clearly has a need for a strong optical response. He seems to flourish with an internal exigency to help him solve the problems of life.  This allows him to interrogate and critically evaluate the observable world while standing in front of his easel.

Stuart Bush, Art exhibition london, Albert Oehlen paintings, contemporary artist,

©Albert Oehlen, Vorfahrt Für immer 1998 mixed media on canvas, private collection, all rights remain with the artist

Contemporary artist – Albert Oehlen – related link

Albert Oehlen - Serpentine Gallery

Although Oehlen paints in the traditional genre of oil paint on canvas, it is however in his nature to tear the rule book up.  I notice spray paint, digital printing techniques from advertising, dirty and muddy washes, runs and expressive marks as well as oils.  It is a feast for the eyes.  His work seems to be about seeing how far a canvas can be taken as way from associations or substance.


It’s a game of chance, of experimenting on the edge of taste.  He asks, is it possible to distinguish the flavours of excess? Can I get away with a hyper-real jarring of pink, orange and green? In ‘Grunacy-Dunkchaig’ (1997), clearly so.  It looks like Oehlen is having so much fun on the canvas.  I want to know what he is having.  I want to join in the hysterics.


As I look at ‘Vofahrt für immer’ (1998) mixed media on canvas, I can see many, many different techniques.  Starting with the canvas-covered in printed squares like a billboard poster. I notice bits of tape in the squares white lines.  I notice the areas that merger and flow, holding the painting together.  Reality is layered, it’s like a having multiple opaque internet tabs open at the same time.  Textures and washes, dry brushwork and thick impasto techniques, the marks seem to have a life of their own.  The fine spray of white on top dims, obscures and becomes a haze. The figures keep the painting out of pure abstraction and on the edge of figuration.

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©Albert Oehlen, Abgaskopf 1998 : 1984 oil on canvas

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At the end of the experience, I realise I have been a passenger on the ultimate painterly joy ride.  There is a fine line between carrying off this declaration and investigation into painting. Oehlen paintings are about painting. A painting that is a riot but manages to keep it all under control in a frenzied composition of jumbled up ideas.


I walked through it all without any stains on my clothes. However, I don’t think the same about my mind.  Without depicting anything, in particular, Oehlen preoccupation with physical symptom, for me, partly aligns with a contemporary version of Warhol.  Warhol stood like an antidote to the excesses of consumerism by reflecting and being consumerism.  Oehlen takes a different approach but one that still reflects that condition.  However, due to the invention of the internet, the overall look is completely different.  He depicts the visual culture in a way that merges the forever flowing detritus. A bit like a doctor recording the physiological state of his patients at a group therapy session.


This is the first time I have been to a solo show of Albert Oehlen’s painting on this scale.  It has left on lasting impact on me.  As I look at each painting I imagine Oehlen with a big smile on his face knowing that he has done it again.  Surprising himself and his potential viewers with outstanding work full of excitement, freedom and fun .  Oehlen reflects his view of the world back to us.

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In 1925, Paul Klee thought abstract values were the path to truth.  However, Oehlen by making something new every time uses abstract art on the edge of figuration like a freedom machine to set us free and liberate our minds.


The show is on in London at the Serpentine Gallery until 2nd February 2020.  I highly recommend that you go to see it but don’t forget to bring a straight jacket for the way home.

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