Scale view of Albert Oehlen's painting Chemical Schmutzli, 2004

Detail of Albert Oehlen's painting Chemical Schmutzli, 2004

Albert Oehlen

Chemical Schmutzli, 2004
化學史穆茨利, 2004年作



Oil on canvas
114 x 102 1/2 inches (289.6 x 260.4 cm)
油彩 畫布
289.6 x 260.4 厘米 (114 x 102 1/2 吋)
© Albert Oehlen. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020

I wanted to paint even more intensely colored pictures, and I prescribed to myself the gray tones as therapy, in order to artificially heighten the lust for color. —Albert Oehlen

 Between 1997 and 2008, Oehlen created a series of paintings in grey tones. Often imposing rules and limitations on his own practice, he made these works in an attempt to steer away from the prominent role color had been given in the concurrent “switch” paintings, in which colorful splashes roam across white backgrounds. In the resulting “grey” paintings, he focused his energies on the painterly gesture, creating amorphous spaces in which abstraction and figuration interlace.

Made in 2004, Chemical Schmutzli debuted in Oehlen’s seminal exhibition of the same year at the Vienna Secession, a survey dedicated to his new work, demonstrating the artist’s radical reinvention of figuration within his own practice. Having largely dedicated himself to abstraction since 1988, when he and Martin Kippenberger moved to Spain together, Oehlen in the 2000s began using figuration in two ways. One of these was his incorporation of found images, continuing the tendency toward collage that had been inherent to his practice since he started pasting mirrors into his works in the mid ‘80s. The grey paintings indicate another trajectory, introducing figures on the painterly surface as a kind of figural presence that border on the formless.

As such, the grey paintings also refer back to Oehlen’s work from the ‘80s, wherein figures and objects emerged from surfaces conceived in an expressionist style (or what Hal Foster termed a “sham Expressionism”). But in these paintings, the subject matter is less conceived in a protest of aesthetic conventions than in the artist’s earlier career, when Oehlen had painted dinosaurs and crude self-portraits in parody of the “heroic” approach of the Neo-Expressionist generation, which saw Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz incorporate historically and symbolically redolent motifs. In the grey paintings, the figures, while retaining a measure of the consciously banal (a vacuum cleaner can be seen in Interior from 1998), appear subtle and delicate, more in dialogue with art history than against it. For instance, these works are reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s blurring method, which aimed at interrupting three-dimensionality by gently smudging the paint that created it. Oehlen, however, steers away from realism into the fantastic, establishing a surface on which figures, bodies, and objects intersect and merge.

With its ambiguous title—Schmutzli being the Swiss designation for Santa (Oehlen had moved to Switzerland in 2000)—Chemical Schmutzli suggest corrosive dissolution, in particular of a face, which here can barely be perceived. Yet this is not so much a commentary on personhood, as a levelling or careful interplay of the abstract and the figurative—aesthetic categories whose separation continues to be maintained by artists and critics alike. In 1994, Oehlen stated, “I come to painting out of the ’70s interest in democratizing high art. That lets me view painting with a certain disdain, or at least a lack of respect. For me, painting is just one of many possible ways of making art. So I can romp around in it. And now that I’m having fun with it, I can take its postulates very seriously.” Chemical Schmutzli exemplifies the ways in which Oehlen has embraced dominant modes of painting only to twist, mutate, and dissect them via his own unique procedures.

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