HOLY SHIT! Been There, Done That: Albert Oehlen
Written by: Efrem Zelony-Mindell

Six mimosas in, we decided to go to the New Museum.

Just as I was thinking we’ve never moved so quickly through a space, Sara said, “I’ve never lost a buzz so fast.” Sara is my closest friend. She likes to touch paintings. Needless to say, I’m in love.

Albert Oehlen currently has a modest, retrospective mounted at New York’s New Museum. It’s puzzling, in ways wonderful, and in others, lacking. Oehlen is a master painter, abstractionist, and all around troublemaker. We like that. German born, world traveler, studying and painting abroad, Oehlen is somewhat of an enigma. His compositions are equally complex and elusive. Painting in a style that addresses the history of abstraction, Oehlen is taking from painters like Arshile Gorky, William de Kooning, and Robert Rauschenberg. These figures are a good starting point for Oehlen as he has his own bizarre and challenging perspective and complex technique. His practice of mixing mediums, styles, collage, photography, and classic painting techniques drives a viewer to stop and take a good hard look. They are not easy for a casual look, they require time to see.

I didn’t bring Sara along without good reason. She’s blunt and handsy. Despite her very vocal thoughts of displeasure, she has more in common with Oehlen than she may realize. I’m desperate and eager to know what she thinks.

“It reminds me of my abortion.” She says.

Oh? My mimosa brain needs to know more.

“Twilight anesthesia knocks you out enough so you remember nothing but you’re still awake and conscious for everything. Big empty jars with hoses in them. And you know you met the doctor but you couldn’t pick him out of a line up.”

Clearly bringing a friend was a good idea. With a quote like that, inspired from Oehlen’s paintings, I hardly need to do any work. Perhaps without realizing it, she’s seeing these images perfectly. Both compositionally and existentially. Are these the rights choices? How am I seeing? How do I construct thoughts and what comes next? All the right questions for the right painter. Perhaps it’s good to point out that the show ends nearly as quickly as it begins. It is a small selection curated with limited space. It’s noticeable. Sara gets aggravated and indifferent. She starts pointing.

“Here!” She points. I notice the shape of her fingers; they’re sharp. Not the nails, the fingers. “He’s cheating.” I know what she wants now. Now she’s hungry for a poke. We’re standing in front of one of Oehlen’s pixelated paintings. I let her know she’s too close, she doesn’t like that. “He’s printed these undulating pixelated lines onto the canvas. I like that! But then he paints these connections on top of the print. It’s a forced connection. It doesn’t exist.”

Reality’s what we make it, toots. Especially now, more than ever. With the overlap of digital and analog, where so many plug in plug out, and lose track that it’s all the same thing; that’s Oehlen’s work exactly. Forced connections, clunky associations between marks and planes of color, somewhere between machine and the hand. Oehlen is a painter with a strong voice deeply rooted in the twenty first century. I love his work, but not this show.

Efrem Zelony-Mindell is an artist who lives in New York. For more of his work click here …

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