BY Mark Prince in Reviews | 06 JUN 01
Featured in
Issue 60

Albert Oehlen

BY Mark Prince in Reviews | 06 JUN 01

The Guardian newspaper recently illustrated a Paul Morley article about the forthcoming film on Factory Records, 24 Hour Party People, with a reproduction of a poster - which now has the windswept air of a historical relic - advertising one of the first Sex Pistols gigs. A friend of mine who was at an early Sex Pistols concert in London remarked that if everyone who has said to him that they were present was actually there, the gig would have had to have taken place in a stadium. Morley's recent memoir, Nothing (2000) shares this dual sense of pop as a partisan relic and contemporary iconoclastic tool.

Albert Oehlen is of Morley's generation and his work has something of the same ambivalent relation to the past, which he treats as both a lost original to venerate and a questionable structure to rebel chaotically against. It is apt in this context that many of his recent 'posters' shown in Hanover resemble the lo-tech design of early Punk fanzines. The combination of allegiance and rejection applies to the art-historical, as well as the more recent Pop-cultural past: a superimposing of time scales.

This exhibition is made up of grey paintings and computer collages which were produced over the past three years; it is the first time they have been shown together. This structure of starkly complementary work 'streams' is prevalent among many of the artist's contemporaries (Gunter Förg, Christopher Wool, Gerhard Richter) but is a relatively new development for Oehlen. Each series of work takes the lead from the other's qualities: monochrome oils beside riotous computer-generated colour. Muted, blurred, slowly-emerging painted forms against a cacophony of contradictions shouting from the posters. In ditching the colour from the paintings, Oehlen transfers the emphasis from paint itself to how images are conjured out of paint. It's as though black and white signals objectivity and representation.

Oehlen has spoken of his work as resistant to the paraphrasing involved in exegesis. His 'autonomous' objects derive this independence from their heterogeneous criteria. He is the guy who enters the saloon with a swagger and takes on everybody. This loose-cannon irreverence can be traced back to Sigmar Polke and Martin Kippenberger, and forward to younger painters such as Daniel Richter, Merlin Carpenter or Michel Majerus. The danger is that this unanalysable unruliness becomes a predictable sign for itself, as much a consumerable style as the rigid coherences which it wants to avoid. One of the effects of this twin strand method is that each neutralizes the claims of the other, so that the whole simultaneously undermines and reinforces the coherence of the individual claims of each type of work.

Many of Oehlen's posters function as adverts for, or mementoes of, an exhibition. But what are we to make of a unique poster, Untitled (2000), which, in being first displayed in the show that it ostensibly announces, and which seems to be subverting its art-object status only to subsequently proclaim it? The piece was originally an invitation card to a posthumous Kippenberger exhibition at Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, which Oehlen then converted into a poster some time after the show. The transmutation involves scale as well as function: all of the posters are over two metres high. The exhibition information is declared with the usual font-freedom over a cheesy hand-coloured landscape. A Dalmatian dog that has mutated into a female nude reclines in its own floating vignette, turning the image into a jokey Déjeuner sur l'herbe. The exclamatory tone of the posters covers a range from art-political satire to Pop memory to piss-take. Like 1970s fanzines that have become relics, they can be read as signs for how culture mythologizes its own output in the process of propagating itself.

This archiving of personal cultural history is a clue to the juxtaposition of different time codes which separate the paintings from the posters. Both modes trade on the suspense of images taking shape and information becoming legible: Photoshop resolution contrasting with the diffident and disenchanted paintings, langorously allowing images to form or not form in the Richterish drag of the grey paint. This dichotomy recalls the slipperiness of all channels of communication and record, whether explicitly digitized or ambiguously painted or a matter of spoken lore. How many people were at that legendary gig and why do we care?

Mark Prince is an artist and writer living in Berlin.