‘When I was still painting objects, the question was: how can you treat something heroically? We placed banal objects in the middle of the picture, and then at some point the realization came: not much more than irony emerges. Then came the cross check: can you do a number on something? And only then did it become clear that the result looked exactly the same and that you always do a number on yourself as well when you paint with disdain’
‘I try to have something really difficult or daring because the more daring it is, the more surprising the result is’
‘...first you take a step toward ugliness and then, somehow or other, you wind up where it’s beautiful’
Albert Oehlen’s Untitled (Statue of Liberty) (1989) confronts the viewer with a mesmeric profusion of painterly forms. Earthy tones body forth a cacophony of abstract fields, while latent figuration struggles into view in a vast profile that echoes the titular statue’s crowned head. Like many of Oehlen’s shapes it also resembles a hand, whose dark kinesic digits remark wryly upon the painting’s gestural smears and expressive drips. Paint trickles disorientingly sideways. Glowing depths of peach fluoresce beneath veils of resinous brown translucency; sedimentary layers reveal tropic flashes of viridian, blue and lavender. Dating from shortly after the artist’s 1988 trip to Spain with Martin Kippenberger which saw Oehlen’s groundbreaking turn to large-scale abstraction, the work clashes disparate traditional modes in a form of thrilling creative ruin. Oehlen deliberately undermines the practice of painting to the point of breakdown. His title points to a tongue-in-cheek iconoclasm, any symbol so recognisable as the Statue of Liberty long drowned in painterly overabundance. Here, Oehlen pushes the liberty of paint itself to its limits. Questioning the central ideas of representation, composition and colour, he asserts an acute conceptual attitude from a paradoxical position: a critique of painting is posed from within the medium itself. Hovering between self-expression and commentary, Untitled (Statue of Liberty) bears witness to an extraordinary practice of meta-painting, confounding and compelling in a riotous implosion of aesthetics, conjuring painting’s most turbulent existential dilemmas to the surface.
Taught by Sigmar Polke and rising to prominence in the 1980s alongside the provocative Kippenberger, Oehlen’s cerebral and subversive art has always been couched in an irreverent and humorous post-Punk sensibility. ‘I don’t think you can really, seriously – or philosophically – try to find out what it is that a painting does to you,’ he has said. ‘It’s contradictory. You can’t come to an end because, if it’s good, it’s beautiful – everything that’s good will be at the end called beautiful. But I like very much if you do things that seem to be forbidden and seem to be impossible, like a test of courage’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in G. O’Brien, ‘Albert Oehlen,’ Interview Magazine, January 2011). Indeed, his boisterous excesses of form and colour defied the very notions of what was acceptable as painting, even while rejuvenating a medium that had been declining in prominence since the 1970s – Oehlen’s is a practice that thrives off contradiction. ‘I see it this way: it’s the confluence of earnestness and ridiculousness that allows the artist to run riot. It’s comparable to a classic jazz soloist. He runs riot within his harmony and stretches it as far as it can go’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in ‘Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen in conversation with Albert Oehlen’, Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden, exh. cat., New Museum, New York, 2015, p. 102).
Having started his career with figurative works, Oehlen’s foray into abstraction was accompanied by a switch from acrylic to oil paint. He recalls that ‘the reason why I went to oil was mainly because I didn’t control it. I was looking for the insecurity of it’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in G. O’Brien, ‘Albert Oehlen,’ Interview Magazine, January 2011). Where others might look for security, the instability Oehlen finds in working with oil further hands the reigns over to paint itself; the gleaming primordial hues and tumescent shapes in Untitled (Statue of Liberty) create an energetic miasma that commits a sort of artistic mutiny. The half-formed head of Lady Liberty could configure the emergent elemental power of the medium, or the painter sinking hopelessly into the all-consuming quicksand of his own work. This is a vision of conflict and irresolution, even as its elements combine in loud protest. ‘I define a vocabulary of qualities,’ Oehlen has said, ‘that I want to see brought together: delicacy and coarseness, color and vagueness, and, underlying them all, a base note of hysteria’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in ‘Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen in conversation with Albert Oehlen’, Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden, exh. cat., New Museum, New York, 2015, p. 99). In Untitled (Statue of Liberty), Oehlen’s distinctive recipe results in a bubbling cauldron of a work that is chimeric, unsettling and intoxicating unlike anything ever seen before in paint.