Painting may be a going concern, but it’s still being contested. The writings of critics such as Peter Schjeldahl and Dave Hickey are filled with sentiments like, Painting is alive, just not important, anymore, or, Painting is like jazz, an obsolete genre people still like to play, notions undoubtedly shared by others. If nothing else, this NewMu survey of Albert Oehlen confirms that doubts about paintings’s efficacy have been internalized by its practitioners. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Oehlen was part of the rambunctious Cologne scene of the ’80s and ’90s, whose capo, Martin Kippenberger, led a reaction against German Neo-Expressionism. Oehlen’s approach was to make road kill out of Neo-Ex pretensions: His canvases treat color, gesture and form like messes left by the roadside.
He upped the ante by being among the first artists to put digital imagery and printing to canvas, as if to say, Who needs a brush? (A subversion subverted here by eight-byte doodles in black-and-white, meticulously enlarged by hand). Stomping on painting while taking pleasure in it, Oehlen deflects the medium’s naysayers by appearing to join their ranks.