In the gallery entrance sits a vending machine selling Cofftea/Kafftee, a coffee-tea hybrid by Albert Oehlen that apparently 'won’t let you sleep ever again'. That might sound like a bold claim, until you look at the paintings, drawings and collages filling the exhibition space.
All painted in the last 30 years, the artworks are a manic, sprawling cacophony of shape, colour, line and vaguely-emerging images. They look precisely like the result of mainlining cold brew after starting the day on three macchiatos. And the intermittent crashing soundtrack, created by three-piece group Steamboat Switzerland, sounds like it too.
At the centre of the gallery is a set of huge canvases echoing a series in the Rothko Chapel, Texas. These, and everything else on display, riff on an oil painting by John Graham, a semi-forgotten American Modernist painter. The original, titled 'Tramonto Spaventoso’ (Terrifying Sunset), features a self-portrait of the mustachioed painter, a hyper-busty mermaid, a large letter H and a ragtag collection of cosmic symbols.
Oehlen repeatedly recreates this hodgepodge assortment, a bit like how love-sick teenagers doodle the same series of hearts, initials and faces over their notebooks. The dopey handlebar ‘tash, the pneumatic-boobed mermaid, that contextless letter that keeps reminding me of ‘Jesus H. Christ’, it all just keeps appearing.
Has Oehlen done this because he hearts Graham’s sludge-hued work as much as he loves an Americano? No. In the exhibition guide he describes how 'My first thought was that it was a really shitty painting. I found it spectacularly bad.'
But Oehlen likes bad painting. In the 1980s, he produced a whole series, including a portrait of Adolf Hitler, called ‘Bad Paintings’. The ones here continue the ugly tradition, hilariously and (almost) transcendently. They mock ‘serious’ art and they mock ‘real’ life by filtering it through a surrealistic pair of goggles, and they deliberately play down the artist’s cleverness. The only problem is this: to appreciate all that you have to look at them. And they’re really, really, fugly.