When standing before Albert Oehlen's Silber II, 2008, the viewer is met with a melee of pictorial activity that infuses styles and epochs to wondrous effect. Heavy gestural brushwork, drips of paint and swirling curves meet with the bold and systematic forms of a computer generated print. Sweeping over the surface of the canvas, a white wash enhances the acid yellow and day-glow pinks, greens, and blues whilst the gradual buildup of layers evokes the meticulously created Abstract Paintings by Gerhard Richter or the transparent paintings by Sigmar Polke, Oehlen's fellow student in the 1970s. Through the absence of any one focal point, the eye is encouraged to rove over this monumental canvas that stands at nearly two meters tall.
Despite his status as one of the most important German painters of his generation, Albert Oehlen began his career at a difficult time for any emerging artist. In the late 1970s, painting had once again been pronounced dead; this supreme discipline of arts seemed exhausted and faced new challenges from Conceptual Art, New Media, Video Art, and Photography. Painting's unique visual character was thought to be lost forever. In response to such challenges, artists began seeking purity in Minimal Art; however, this was quickly dismissed by a group of young German artists known as the Junge Wilde, or Wild Young Artists, who set about actively rejecting the prevailing cultural values of the time and among whom included artists such as Rainer Fetting, Markus Lpertz, and Oehlen's lifelong friend Martin Kippenberger. Through his engagement in the confrontation of painting, Oehlen's early work was part of this movement and looked to reinvigorate painting through the act of painting itself. His decision to practice painting did not however simply stem from the "hunger of images" in an attempt to counteract conceptual and minimal art, but was instead prompted by the critique inherent in painting and his own critical detachment from the medium (C. Schreier, "Storm Damage - Albert Oehlen's Painting as a Visual Stress Test," in Terpentin 2012 Turpentine: Albert Oehlen, exh. cat., Kunst Museum Bonn, Bonn, 2012, p. 71). Along with his friend Kippenberger, he embarked on an irreverent intellectual assault on the precepts of art.
Oehlen began mixing multiple elements of abstraction, figuration, printing, and collage in an approach he termed post-non-figurative. By presenting such a variety of diverse and often incompatible forms of visual information, he effectively dismantled the orthodoxies and restrictive policies that had historically dominated the field of abstract art. As Iona Blazwick suggests this method allowed Oehlen to "exceed the codified discourse of painting, breaking through the laws of a visual language censored by grammar and semantics, as a kind of social and political protest" (I. Blazwick, I Will Always Champion Good Painting, exh. cat., Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2006, p. 7). In the 90s, the digital age provided Oehlen with an entirely new foundation for creation that allowed him to directly confront an additional artistic convention, the myth of the artistic self. He began to combine computer generated images, painted with a mouse and then applied to a canvas with an inkjet printer, with more traditional painting materials such as oils and acrylic. Through these mechanically generated images, Oehlen was able to redefine the notion of artistic authorship.
Although Silber II is a clear development from the more overtly digital paintings of the late 90s and early 2000s, Oehlen continues to confound traditional art historical iconography by mixing styles and processes. The layering of paint that points to both Richter and Polke mingles with bold brushstrokes and drips of paint recalling the gestures of Abstract Expressionism, whilst the seamlessly generated print nods to the decorative, or even the dizzying, psychedelic forms of Op Art. Even the colors appear to contradict themselves in a clash of Punk and Minimalism. Punchy yellow, deep browns, and vivid pinks, greens, and blues are incongruously juxtaposed with hazy white and subdued purplish tones. Through its own contradictions, the work eliminates an allegiance to one particular style and Oehlen achieves his aim of creating an autonomous art.
Equally subversive to Oehlen's disregard for compositional harmony, coherence or convention is the way he paints the canvas. Working over and over the surface in layers, the activity of painting becomes more like an act of improvisation or even vandalism, the glossy silver print appears tarnished by unruly brushstrokes and the paint smears appear almost like stains on the surface. And yet it is through these marks that the work reaches its own kind of sublime perfection. Oehlen himself said 'first you take a step toward ugliness and then, somehow or other, you wind up where it's beautiful' (A. Oehlen, quoted in S. Frenzel, 'Stress Findet Statt', in Monopol Magazin, no. 1, January 2010, pp. 45-46). It is almost as if several pictures have been attempted, painted one on top of the other, revealing and obscuring, informing and concealing. As Martin Clark aptly points out, Oehlen's paintings "reveal themselves with almost unbearable honesty: their possibilities, their desires and most importantly their failings" (M. Clark, "Abstract painting must die now" in I will always champion good painting: I will always champion bad painting, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 2006, p. 58).