Albert Oehlen @ the Serpentine Gallery

Albert Oehlen

Albert Oehlen (b. 1954) is a German painter based in Switzerland. He has been a key figure in contemporary art since the 1980s.

“By bringing together abstract, figurative, collaged and computer-generated elements on the canvas, he continues to explore an inventive diversity of artistic approaches. Through Expressionist brushwork, Surrealist gestures and deliberate amateurism, Oehlen engages with the history of painting, pushing the components of colour, gesture, motion and time to new extremes.”

John Graham

The absolutely vital piece of information you need to know in order to understand this FREE exhibition of Oehlen’s work at the Serpentine Gallery is that ALL the pieces reference a much older painting by American artist John Graham, titled Tramonto Spaventoso (‘Terrifying Sunset’) (1940-49).

Tramonto Spaventoso by John Graham (1940 – 49)

Graham is a fascinating figure, having been born Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky in Kiev, fighting in Russian cavalry during the Great War, fleeing the Bolshevik revolution to Warsaw and then emigrating to America, where he took a new name, found a job and developed an experimental interest in art, trying out various forms of modernism and abstraction, and serving as a mentor to the young Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky.

As you can see from Tramonto Spaventoso there was also a lot of Surrealism mixed up in his style, along with a refusal of being afraid to look amateurish and cack-handed. The terrifying sunset consists of a roughly drawn portrait of a man with eyeglasses and caricature moustache, the picture behind him divided into four quadrants showing (from top left) four golden circles which might be suns but also have lions’ faces drawn in them; two black classical pillars between which you can see a ploughed field leading off to the horizon and a sky with clouds; a mermaid with a curlicue tail whose breasts appear to be spurting milk at the central figure, and with blood pouring from a wound in her side; and at the bottom left another yellow lion face, this one with three legs appearing around its mane.

The John Graham remix

Oehlen has taken this obscure work by a now-largely-forgotten artist and subjected it to a whole series of remixes, mash-ups and distortions. He’s been doing this for at least ten years and this exhibition brings together about twenty of the results, small, medium-sized, large, and absolutely enormous in scale.

Sohn von Hundescheisse by Albert Oehlen (1999) Private Collection, Photo: Archive Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin | Paris © Albert Oehlen

So in each of the twenty or so mashups you are looking for those elements: face in the middle with a huge moustache; suns with faces; columns in the upper-right corner, with a series of lines going to the horizon, a mermaid at bottom right.

These figures or symbols are submitted to all kinds of distortions of shape and colour and position. The pain is applied in violent haphazard way, using extremely bright and vibrant colours with no regard for creating a consistent palette or tone (in real life the pink line along the top of this one looks almost fluorescent).

Oehlen’s aim is obviously to reference and recreate the original in the most random, attacked and disrespectful way possible, chucking out all guidelines of taste and decorum to see what happens. This makes it difficult to like. My initial reaction was visceral repulsion and anthropological amusement at what, nowadays, in the 2010s, comprises successful contemporary art.

However, once you have grasped that every single one of the works is referencing the Graham painting, it introduces a childish Where’s Wally aspect to trying to identify in each work the deeply buried mermaid and moustaches etc. And this activity ends up drawing you into his visual world, wild and deliberately scrappy, garish and amateurish though it is.

Vorfahrt für immer by Alber Oehlen (1998) Private Collection. Photo by the author

The Mark Rothko chapel

This is most obvious in the big central room of the Serpentine Gallery which has a circular cupola to let light in. Here Oehlen has created a new work especially for the Serpentine, a site-specific work which takes the remix approach to the Graham original to new heights and absurdities.

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo: readsreads.info

This space is now the location of two overlapping re-interpretations of other artists’ work, because the layout, the size and hang of these enormous Oehlen works is deliberately based on the layout and hang of the paintings which American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko made for what became known as ‘the Rothko Chapel’ in Houston, Texas.

The Rothko Chapel, Texas

But whereas Rothko’s paintings are carefully composed and co-ordinated to create a shimmering meditative effect, and promote a spirit of serious meditation, Oehlen’s works rip up any idea of respect and decorum, consisting of wild hand-drawn cartoons, massive sketches, garish washes and caricature figures and faces.

It’s almost as if he’s doing everything he can think of to undermine the idea of ‘art’ as a serious activity worthy of respect. He has apparently given interviews throughout his career discussing the influence on him of Surrealism, but I think you have to go a step further back to DADA, with men on stage shouting nonsense poetry through megaphones while someone attacks a piano with a hammer to find artistic cognates of Oehlen’s works.

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

This resolutely iconoclastic approach explains a lot about what you’re actually seeing, but there’s a bit more going on as well. It was an excellent Serpentine visitor assistant who explained the importance of the John Graham original to me. But he then went on to explain other things Oehlen has done with these huge works.

  1. Charcoal is usually used by artists to do sketches and drawings. But some of these works are done in charcoal on canvas primed and painted white i.e. given the status of paintings. (See image on the left, above)
  2. By contrast, watercolour is usually employed in lightly figurative work to create delicate washes and effects, but here Oehlen uses it (or a very watery acrylic) to create huge and very rough lines or areas of pure colour (see image above, right)
  3. In other, smaller works you can also see that Oehlen has got a spraycan and simply sprayed reasonably crafted works with spatters of cheap, dayglo, spraycan colours, such as ginger.

Above and beyond these technical mashups, there are also two obvious visual references. One is to the notorious moustaches of Salvador Dalí, exaggerated into schoolboy cartoons (see above).

The other is the references to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, which features heavily in the current Dora Maar exhibition at Tate Modern. Here’s Guernica: look at the heads at the far left and far right. In both instances the head is depicted side-on, face-up, at an unrealistic angle from the ‘neck’ supporting it.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Compare and contrast with this, one of the enormous panels in the Oehlen show. Clearly he is channeling the Guernica neck and head (along with the Dalí moustaches and the Graham composition).

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Conclusion

So, it is good to be informed: having been told that the Graham painting underpins everything in this exhibition is crucial to understanding the show.

Knowing that the Graham painting itself showed heavy Surrealist influences, feeds through into feeling the Surrealist undertones of the Oehlen works, and you can have a laugh at the Dali moustaches, you can congratulate yourself at spotting the Picasso reference.

Knowing that the big central room is a parody or pastiche or riff on the Rothko Chapel also helps to explain its layout and the sheer scale of the paintings Oehlen has filled it with.

And I did like some of the images he’s come up with – like the one I opened this review with, whose sheer bloody-minded, cack-handed, over-coloured exuberance achieves a kind of Gestalt, a totality of awfulness which is sort of impressive.

But no, at the end of the day, despite all the extenuating circumstances, and the intellectual interest of all this background information, no, I found them horrible.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

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