NORTH MIAMI, FL.-The Museum of Contemporary Art will present, Albert Oehlen: I Know Whom You Showed Last Summer, the first major U.S. exhibition of the German artist Albert Oehlen. On view through January 8, 2006, the exhibition will feature 30 canvases from 1988 2003, and explore how Oehlen pushes the parameters of formal Modernism to the extreme by using colors, forms, and spatial relationships that distort the accepted standards of good painting. The exhibition is organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami and is curated by MOCA Director Bonnie Clearwater.
The selection of paintings for this exhibition, notes Clearwater, "are among the most extreme examples of Oehlen's works. Although he has worked in a variety of mediums and styles, the abstract paintings are his primary interest as he believes they make the most concise statement about his rational approach to art. In these paintings he sets up impossible situations that he ultimately resolves with great intelligence, humor and finesse." This humor, she adds extends to the title of the exhibition, which Oehlen chose after the original title was forgotten. "I Know Whom You Showed Last Summer" [sic] is part reference to American popular culture and the horror film "I Know What You Did Last Summer," and a wry nod to the Museum of Contemporary Art's own exhibition history.
Born in Krefeld, Germany in 1954, Oehlen came of age during a period dominated by neo-expressionist painting in Germany. He was impressed as a youth by Jorg Immendorf's attempts to paint "bad paintings" and by the way Georg Baselitz solved the problem of incorporating figures into his paintings by painting the images upside down so that the subject is still recognizable, but takes on abstract qualities. A student of Sigmar Polke's at the Academy of Fine Art in Hamburg, Oehlen, like Polke and Gerhard Richter engaged painting as a process of rationalization rather than self-expression.
By the late 1980s, Oehlen had become preoccupied with issues raised by modern abstract painting. Rather than accept the Modernist notion of unity of composition and space, he tests the validity of this concept and exposes its flaws. Oehlen engages in a conceptual process as he turns painting into a plastic language that the viewer can read.
Oehlen substitutes the grid and straight lines favored by modern painters to maintain the flat picture plane with diagonal lines and tapered shapes, which are perceived as foreshortened forms in illusionistic space. An admirer of the Abstract Expressionist Hans Hoffmann's color theory of "push-pull," which forced various planes of color to remain locked in a two-dimensional balance, Oehlen uses color instead to push and pull the space of his paintings in several directions at once. He further confounds the viewer's relation to the space of his paintings by alternating the scale of the composition's elements. Large figures consequently look as though they are in the foreground while small forms appear to recede. Oehlen's goal is to direct the viewer to see exactly what is in front of them, thereby comprehend the tricks of pictorial illusion and to follow his logic in making certain decisions. He is just as content, though, to have viewers respond to his paintings on a visceral level.
In many instances, Oehlen's first step in executing a painting is to create a collage on the canvas as the underlying structure. By starting his work with figurative elements and adding abstract forms as he progresses, Oehlen repeats art history as he revisits the "progress of art" from figurative painting to abstraction. It is not unusual for Oehlen to work on a single painting for several years.
By halting work on a painting before it is finished, Oehlen can return to it at a later date with an objective eye. The distance of time allows him to make more radical changes on the painting than when he started. By working on paintings over an extended period of time, Oehlen confounds any attempts to establish the evolution of his abstract paintings from his early years to the present.