Monday, December 28, 2009

Albert Oehlen, Musée de l'art Moderne de Paris

With the Centre Pompidou closed due to continuing industrial disputes, the Albert Oehlen exhibition at the Musée de l'art Moderne de Paris is one of the only contemporary art exhibitions on in Paris over the holidays. While I wouldn’t rush to see it, it’s certainly a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. But I am not sure it is much more than that.

I was excited at the prospect of seeing so much of Oehlen’s work in one place. However, his works which sit at a crossroads between American Abstract Expressionism, German neo-Expressionism with traces of pop art and even Secessionism are enticing, but not always rewarding. The psychadelic and plastic colors — lime green, violet, hot pinks — the collages of mass media images and the playfulness, or some might say, lack of subtlety, make Oehlen’s paintings unmistakeably post-modern. While the self-conscious use of media is interesting, it is also somewhat overwrought. Indeed, the application of paint can be almost ironic in its exaggeration: a sudden stopping and starting, the visible traces of the artist’s thinking – “I will place it here, not there”, and the drips running from left to right across the canvas. However, these gestures are not redolent of a love of paint, so much as a love of the self as an artist.

The same self-annexation is evident in the use of the different media – photographs, mass cultural images, different kinds of paint — did not convey much about the media or what they represent, but rather, betrayed an interest in what the artist can do, what the artist does. When the images invariably represent women's bodies, in fragmented form, the superficiality of the re-appropriation becomes uncomfortable viewing. And though the evidence of German cultural icons or German language could be identified in the interstices between different colors of paint or between images, these did not make any substantial reference to German identity, either cultural or historical. They were no more than compositional elements in a visual field.

On more than one occasion, I have been "accused" of being a modernist with all the derogatory and superciliousness of academic authority. However, rather than this being a strike against my intellectual position, it has never been made clear to me what the problem might be with aligning myself with a modernist aesthetic and a modernist sensibility. Certainly, if the demand for responsibility to image and what it represents be a modernist demand, I am not about to be convinced by the political, intellectual or ethical irresponsibility of my opinions! However, I am willing to be convinced that there is something I have not seen for the brashness of Oehlen's painting.

All this said, on another level, what I enjoyed about these paintings was the use of the thick white ground, and later in the 1990s and 2000s the colored grounds: these do not appear as supports for the collages of images and other painted shapes and gestures. But rather, background and foreground remain separated, two distinct planes, with nothing in between. As such, the emptiness of the painted space and its harsh perceptual effect when standing close to the canvas, become negotiated when seen from a distance. It is only then, at a distance, that the supposed emotional power of Oehlen's paintings begins to emerge.

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