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

Sleepless by France-Lise McGurn @ Tate Britain

Art Now is a series of free exhibitions at Tate Britain showcasing emerging talent and highlighting new developments in British art. It is generally held in the big exhibition room on your right, next to the rotunda, once you’ve gone up the stairs and through the main entrance to Tate Britain.

This big, white, well-lit room is currently hosting a site-specific exhibition by Glasgow-based artist France-Lise McGurn (born 1983).

Figurative outlines of people

McGurn mostly works with paint, and draws people, slender outlines of people caught in various postures and actions, often dancing, leaping, twisting, turning. That’s certainly what the work here looks like – light and elegant drawings of naked people — in the detail below, apparently bending stretching walking sitting – and these sketchy outlines are treated with random washes of primary colours applied in broad brushstrokes or patches.

Installation view of Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless at Tate Britain, 2019. Photo by Tate Photography

In a big white room

The room is big and light and airy. The walls are painted white and there are big skylights. I went on a sunny day. The overwhelming visual and psychological impact was of LIGHT and airiness. It felt lovely just to walk around the room, glancing now and then at the figures dancing on the wall. They felt like a sort of 21st century version of a Renaissance frieze except that the great majority of the wall had been left a pure and cleansing white.

Installation view of Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless at Tate Britain, 2019. Photo by Tate Photography

Interplay between canvas and wall

A lot of the figures – dancing, bending, posing, sitting amid blotches and spatters of yellow and orange paint – have been painted directly onto the wall. Presumably this is what it means to say the work is ‘site-specific’ in the sense that, eventually, when it ends, they will all be painted over.

Except for the half a dozen or so canvases, ranging in size from medium to very, very large, which are stuck to the walls. These canvases partake of the bigger pattern i.e. they are composed of line drawings of people in motion, with washes of paint which start on the canvas and wash over onto the walls, joining them to the bigger configuration.

On the whole, though, looking closely, it seemed to me that the figures and compositions on the canvases were more densely drawn and painted. They felt like the nexuses of the composition, out of which, and between which, flowed lines of energy. Focal points.

Installation view of Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless at Tate Britain, 2019. Photo by Tate Photography

Curators and sex

So the whole thing gave me the impression of light and airiness and dancing and happiness. Being in this room made me smile.

However, McGurn is a woman, and the curator of the installation is a woman, and so I was not at all surprised to learn, when I wandered over to the wall label, that the installation is actually all about sexuality and the body.

Much more so than their male equivalents, contemporary women artists are very often concerned with the body and sex, often with their own bodies, quite often with taking their clothes off to expose their own bodies, examine their own bodies, question their own bodies.

Both women artists and women curators are often obsessed with sex and gender in a way the rest of the world is not and in a way which has the effect of narrowing and limiting and confining responses and ideas and feelings and the imagination. This is what the curator writes:

McGurn draws on a collected archive of found imagery to create figurative installations which express notions of sexuality, ecstasy, loss and consciousness. The new body of work presented in Sleepless explores the experience of living in a city as one that is intimate and inherently sexual. The exhibition title itself evokes key themes in McGurn’s work, including partying, dreams, longing, motherhood and nostalgic popular culture, recalling the 1993 romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle.

Hmmm it is mildly interesting to learn that the piece is named after Sleepless in Seattle – although what these perfect, mute, rather Greek god-like figures have to do with very non-Greek-looking Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks is not immediately obvious. But:

‘The experience of living in a city as one that is intimate and inherently sexual.’

Hmmm. As you crowd onto the Tube at rush hour, as you wait for a bus in the rain, as you walk past deafening roadworks, as you breathe in the toxic mix of diesel fumes and carbon particulates… does your experience of living in the city strike you as being ‘inherently sexual’? Or  ‘intimate?’

My querying of these kinds of curatorial descriptions isn’t motivated by anti-intellectualism or anti-feminism. It’s that:

1. So often their descriptions of human existence seem wildly at odds with the experiences of myself, my family and everyone I know. I just asked my son if his experience of living as a student in the big city of Bristol struck him as ‘intimate and inherently sexual?’ I cannot reprint what he said. He thought I was mad.

2. More importantly, my view is that this kind of stock-in-trade obsession with sexuality, gender and identity, this kind of standardised, boilerplate rhetoric about sexuality and desire, actually conceals and masks the art itself. The art itself is made up of lines and patterns and colours. The ‘subject matter’ is an important part of it, no doubt (although learning that the title comes from Sleepless in Seattle narrows and limits and brings your experience of the wall paintings down to a very specific time and place and cultural reference with a bit of a thump).

But the art itself is a matter of lines and patterns and colours and surfaces which, as you follow them with your eyes, begin to make your imagination flow and bend and soar along with them. And as they spill over from the canvas you feel a lovely sense of freedom and unconfinedness, and as some of them dance up towards the sunny skylights you feel a wonderful sense of openness and freedom.

For me, far more important than any amount of guff about the inherent sexiness of ‘the city’ is the dynamic visual and tactile effect created by the contrast between the painted walls and the more composed canvases which stud them. That juxtaposition is visually and imaginatively exciting.

What irritates me about the way so many curators and wall labels and guides write about art is that they cramp and confine it by imposing narrow social definitions and ideas and fashionable ‘issues’ onto it, instead of attempting to explain how the art is made, and the effect it has on us. Not on our Guardian-reading social consciences, with their narrow Pavlovian responses to trigger words like gender and sexuality and race and refugees and equality and the male gaze, and the rest of contemporary art scholarship’s fantastically small and limited little box of woke issues.

But where art should and generally does work – deep down in the imagination, the soul, the spirit, the unconscious, the preconscious, on our feelings, on our feel for pattern and colour and the sometimes very fleeting moods and responses they trigger in us.

The actual art of Sleepless made me want to fly, I felt beguiled by the strange and unexpected whorls of lines and the dancing figures, which shimmer across the walls, some of them rising up into the sunlit sky.

The curator commentary on it brought me down to earth with a painful bump, thumping my mind with the worst kind of artspeak clichés.

I met a man at a dinner party the other day who goes to even more art exhibitions than me. He told me he has stopped reading any of the wall labels of any exhibitions of contemporary art, because he finds them so irritatingly narrow and repetitive and limiting. Although, by doing so, you risk missing out on important information, I’m beginning to think he’s got the right idea. That you should go to an art exhibition and just respond to the art without any interference from the curators and guides imposing their obsessive concerns with gender and race onto the visitor.

Demographics

This exhibition is FREE to stroll in, around and out of, and certainly isn’t worth going to Tate Britain just for itself – but if you’re going to Tate Britain anyway, you should make the effort to seek it out.

When I went at about noon on a weekday, there was one other person in the room.

Curators

Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless is curated by Zuzana Flaskova.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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