Intent on fostering a sense of constant movement and examining the notion of pure abstraction, Albert Oehlen’s oeuvre is full of riotous examples of painterly dexterity and invention. Stilleben mit Ingwertopf (Still Life with Ginger Pot) is a tumultuous example of the artist’s multilayered style and helps to chart a course through his investigation of the artform since breaking with figuration and overt political subject matter in the late 1980s. As curator and critic Hamza Walker notes, Oehlen’s compositions "represent a chorus of contradictory gestures; figuration is set against abstraction, form against anti-form, the rhythm of pattern versus a meandering stroke, and a muddy mix of colours juxtaposed against vibrant pigment straight from the tube... Oehlen's paintings are always autonomous in so far as they have managed to eliminate through contradiction an allegiance to any particular style," (H. Walker cited in: Albert Oehlen: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, exh. cat., University of Chicago, The Renaissance Society, 1999, n.p.). Consciously working to distance himself from any particular movement or influence, Oehlen creates canvases full of visual disparities that rail against the dominant order.
[Oehlen’s compositions] represent a chorus of contradictory gestures; figuration is set against abstraction, form against anti-form, the rhythm of pattern versus a meandering stroke... Oehlen’s paintings are always autonomous in so far as they have managed to eliminate through contradiction an allegiance to any particular style.”
Set within a square field, a frenzy of strokes, washes, and abstract forms point to Oehlen’s dextrous hand and his ability to coax balance from chaos. Offset from the center, a mysterious gray-brown shape hovers above a bevy of translucent areas of green and yellow. Luminous bursts of white and solid arcs of orange pierce the haze and draw the viewer through the artist’s tangle of marks. Just below the midpoint of the composition, a grid like structure is visible. Drawing allusions to a set of bared teeth or the patterning on a porcelain jar, this optical device acts as an entry point into the swirl of paint. The right side of the canvas exhibits more sharp-edged strokes and amorphous shapes, but the billowing fog of color emanating from the left threatens to overwhelm these structures. Art historian Ralf Beil talks about Oehlen’s eschewal of concrete form and love of movement when he writes: “With his strategies of the complication of painting, Albert Oehlen is working toward the maximum possible openness in his work. Everything is in perpetual movement, and must remain in the balance. Nothing may be permanently fixed. Constantly looking for new paths into and around painting seems to be the central objective of his always virtuoso anti-virtuoso vitality” (R. Beil, “Red Light District,” in: Albert Oehlen: Paintings 1980-2004, exh. cat., Lausanne, Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, 2004, p. 37). Highlighting the tenuous balance between harmony and complete disarray, Beil’s note points to the crux of Oehlen’s practice. The excitement and drama inherent in something so kinetically charged is what makes canvases like Stilleben mit Ingwertopf work. The title is reminiscent of works like Still Life with Gingerpot II (1911-12) by Piet Mondrian, but Oehlen expands on that early abstraction and pushes the humble spice container into a vibrating overdrive of color and form.
With his strategies of the complication of painting, Albert Oehlen is working toward the maximum possible openness in his work. Everything is in perpetual movement, and must remain in the balance. Nothing may be permanently fixed. Constantly looking for new paths into and around painting seems to be the central objective of his always virtuoso anti-virtuoso vitality.”
Oehlen studied painting in the late 1970s at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg. There, he found himself under the tutelage of revolutionary artist Sigmar Polke. Polke’s rebellious attitude and non-traditional methods influenced Oehlen heavily. “Polke more or less tried to show us that he wasn’t able to teach us something in the classical sense [...],” Oehlen recalled. “I couldn’t say what Polke’s influence was, but it’s his radicality. When you start to work as an artist everybody thinks about radicality, like how could you make the most shocking thing. And it’s not easy ... Polke is somebody who had a role in that; in a way he made very radical things,” (A. Oehlen, quoted in, “Interview with Albert Oehlen,” Pataphysics Magazine, 1990). Oehlen took what he learned into the 80s and, along with fellow artist and provocateur Martin Kippenberger, made a splash on the German art scene. An unfettered approach to art making continued through the decade until 1988 when Oehlen abandoned all representational subject matter and dove headlong into abstraction. Noting a period spent with Kippenberger in Spain, the painter said, “I always had a wish to become an abstract painter. I wanted to reproduce in my own career the classical development in the history of art from figurative to abstract painting. But I wasn’t ready to make the change before 1988. In Spain I made myself free for the project,” (A. Oehlen, quoted in A. Stooke, “I Wanted My Paintings to Like Me,” The Telegraph, July 1, 2006). Oehlen’s sojourn to the Iberian peninsula was a turning point in his career, and its results are on full display in Stilleben mit Ingwertopf. As his ideas on painting evolve and blossom, so too do his paintings expand in all directions.