Albert Oehlen – Gagosian Gallery
This was one of the best painting only exhibitions I have seen for some time. I can see exactly why some people have found this selection of work very hard to accept and dismiss it as being chancy and “bad painting”. I personally found them very bold and made with the sort of confidence that only comes from years of painting. I could see so many references to past artists and styles including abstract expressionism / colour field, graffiti art, traditional landscape painting and minimalism. The fact that these paintings are called “baum” (German for tree) tells their source reference. Yes, they are all just paintings of trees and perhaps this is one reason that they have not gone down well as “trees” seem to be quite low on the worthiness scale of subject matter for painting. People who generally like paintings of “trees” tend to like the work of artists such as constable or Gainsborough and admirers of contemporary art tend to not want to look at “trees”. Subject matter (in my opinion) is pretty much irrelevant in real painting and it is merely (though not always) a starting point from which to make a painting. These “trees” look like they have come from some sort of graphic novel styles nightmare, they are flat, often menacing, appear to be moving but very much dead at the same time.
A close look shows their construction process on top of large, whitewashed aluminium sheets. Lots of masking up, spray painted areas, large fading colour fields of Alizarin crimson and occasional Prussian blue paint. Hardedge yet painterly and gestural at the same time and they convey a look of being produced quickly and instinctively.
After looking at these paintings for a while I realised that they were very similar to the series of small mixed media works I did a short while ago. In my series I used a simple reference of “buildings” to produce a large series of small 10x7cm mixed media works. I was working under the intention of black and grey scale charcoal, pencil, pen, marker, crayon etc... with small amounts of bright green and orange, a bit like the crimson in Oehlens works. Oehlens works were much, much bigger than mine, about 10x 4 feet and they were also more considered with less going on in each image. This made me consider the how my series of works would have looked if they were much bigger and a slightly more considered. I decided that I would revisit the idea of using various mediums on one much large surface. I also wanted to incorporate masking and subtle “template” and spray painted areas the same as Oehlen had in his works.