Oehlen's paintings incorporate both motivations, enacting a lively, discursive and responsive dialogue realised directly onto the works themselves, while also exhibiting more unsettling, violent and even self-destructive tendencies. They seem to oscillate between a number of possibilities all at once. If cubism attempted to render the object in time and space through the imposition of multiple specular viewpoints, Oehlen appears to imagine the painting in several parallel universes. It looks like numerous pictures have been painted, one on top of the other, all occupying the same space, bleeding into and out of each other, revealing and obscuring informing and concealing. But then isn't that the condition of most painting? All paintings are painted over time - whether quickly or slowly - often built up layer upon layer, changed, altered, corrected, amended. Painting is a practice that allows for a critical dialogue with itself and its histories. From Abstract Expressionism, where it's all on the surface, to Renaissance masterpieces which, when x-rayed, reveal their under-paintings, false starts, re-workings and erasures.
In Oehlen's work these operations are exaggerated and foregrounded. It's all there on the surface of the canvas, on the screen if you like, displayed in its ambitious uncertainty; its moments of lyricism and nonsense, lucidity and jibberish, ugliness and beauty, confidence and doubt. The paintings reveal themselves with almost unbearable honesty: their possibilities, their desires and most importantly their failings. In an interview in 1990 Oehlen talked about the importance of failure to his work: "If I had a feeling that it wouldn't work, I thought I had to prove that it wouldn't work." Oehlen's strategy from the beginning was to show, through his works themselves, that he wasn't interested in ideas of success or failure, ore more accurately, that he was equally interested in both.
Oehlen has painted himself into a position where none of his canvases can be described as either abstract or figurative. It is not even that they might simply be a mix of the two. His own term is 'post-non-representational'. When you look at other painting today it feels like his works have evolved into an entirely new species; brought into being like Frankenstein's monster; cobbled together from the best and the worst bits of art history's gaudy corpses. Painting becomes both a limitation and a liberation. Freed from any notion of formal repetition, of content or theme, he is able to investigate, question, experiment and play in the plastic cosmology - the very material and matter - that constitutes and defines that universe. Just as in Hip Hop or electronic music, new methodologies and technologies inevitably expand the disciplines they bastardise. Oehlen's sampledelic, synthesised practice extends painting's vocabulary - its expressive, emotional range - whether intentionally or not. But it is his attitude - Punk's lasting legacy - that ensures his work remains so restless and vital. Where it might have got lazy, bloated or 'clever', puffed itself up into prog-rock noodling or anal over-production, he continues to take risks, pushes things forward, keeping it difficult, dirty, raucous and real.
(Oehlen quoted in exh.catI Will Always Champion Good Painting, Whitechapel Gallery London 2006, p.58-59)