Albert Oehlen

Interview by
Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen
From: Issue 24 SS 2014

Unified by a brilliant understanding of the semiotics of images, and agitated by a humorous take on the false dichotomy of good and bad taste, the great German painter’s practice unfolds through a set of constraints and a brutally harsh interior dialogue – setting up a little chess game between the painter and the canvas.

FREDI FISCHLI and NIELS OLSEN  Your upcoming show at New York’s New Museum is centered on your “Computer Paintings.”

ALBERT OEHLEN  Yes, that series is based on computer-generated images that have then been painted on. I made them in two short bursts, sometime in the middle of the 1990s through 2000. It’s a great thing to see these paintings together again—it makes me happy.

FN  And along with the computer paintings, there’s a group of works from the late 1990s. Massimiliano Gioni calls them “switch paintings.” Where did that concept come from?

AO  It’s a temporary title suggested by the material. In theseis works, I layered various images over each other on the computer, printed them out in large format, and then painted over them. They can be seen either as computer-generated art or as physical constructions. I appropriate something “found” and imagine I have painted it myself. Naturally, I’m not satisfied, so then I take further steps.

FN  Are these further steps closer to erasure or to improvement?

AO  Both. The two go together. To improve something—in order to make it fresh—you have to repaint it. That’s one part of the process. You also have to overpaint—that is, to take the painting further, playing surgeon to an extent by connecting, swabbing, sewing together, plastering over.

FN  How do you bring the computer into the process?

AO  It allows me to bring up many different images. As I consider them, I define a vocabulary of qualities that I want to see brought together: delicacy and coarseness, color and vagueness and, underlying them all, a base note of hysteria.

FN  The work does have a very hysterical quality to it, probably because it does not represent any realistic composition. They are totally “all-over” paintings.

AO  Yes, they are extreme “all-over” paintings. From time to time, some specific element is accentuated, but then there will be something absurd, right in the middle of the picture. It’s the third eye—the Eye of God, so to speak. But I also don’t think that “all-over” is contrary to composition.

FN  Yes, though the paintings follow the “all-over” principle and are hysterical, they’re also very specific. Your imagery draws strongly on the aesthetic of computer-assisted design, which makes it emblematic of those techniques. This is made all the more true because you use the computer’s traditional tools in your compositions: spirals, patterns, shading, grids, pixels, etc. Then you bring your painterly art to it. To me, the group makes a compelling center of the exhibition because it grows out of one particular method.

AO  The beautiful thing is that here, people can see this whole group of paintings together for the first time and see that they fall somewhere in the middle of my oeuvre. It marks a central point and shows where the streams cross.

FN  I wonder, as you develop a new group of work—your current collaged “interior” paintings, for example—what role the contemporary context plays in it. It seems to me that your works engage the zeitgeist, but they also have a markedly nostalgic mood.

AO  I assess my ideas to see where they fit in time. I did that pretty consciously with the computer paintings, the black-and-white ones—I knew just where I was, and it turned out to be right. Maybe I just was lucky that my idea was correct, that I simply knew how it would look in the end. With these collaged “interior” paintings, I have no idea where they rightly belong, but the nostalgic element is of course part of it, because there are references to décollage, Pop art, and the anti-consumerist culture of the 1970s. While it’s all deliberate, it does fascinate me when I hit on something that other people have overlooked—that’s the coolest thing of all!

FN  The same holds true for the computer paintings. At the moment you were making them, it was probably clear that the prevailing computer technologies were precarious and would soon become obsolete. Now, more than a decade later, they’ve taken on an almost archaeological aura.

AO  Obviously, when a new approach or technique appears, you can bet that some clown from Krefeld doesn’t stand the best chance of gaining a worldwide monopoly on it. But there are mistakes a person can avoid making and mistakes you can get away with, to a degree.

Computer art has always been associated with precise effects that you can’t normally achieve by hand. When computer art began to appear on electronica album covers, for instance, you would see spirals that were far too labor-intensive and complex to be drawn by hand. The computer can generate improbable images pretty effectively, and that’s become the expectation we place on computer art. Expectations are still being defined in the context of extremes: new technology offers new possibilities. But at the same time, just because these days we can print cheaply and large-scale doesn’t mean we should print like fiends; just because the computer’s color palette is varied doesn’t mean we should assume it might give us more colors than can be produced with the oils we buy.

The modern age has given rise to a certain attitude toward the image. In my opinion, it’s not so much a shift to the abstract; rather, it’s closer to the idea that you can extract the meaning of images from the canvas.

FN  It’s remarkable the way you blend the precarious technology of computers with motifs from preexisting visual material, creating a new kind of pictorial composition. You don’t treat the images you’ve isolated as individual elements—you add to them by bringing them into contact with new images, so they are freed of their original content and exert a different impact on the picture. Do the original images work primarily as triggers to your compositions?

AO  Yes, something like that. Although, actually, in my evolution as a whole, I really wanted to recapitulate the evolution of modern art—from representational to abstract. I say that only half-earnestly, but it’s essentially true and was consciously done.

FN  Was it actually programmatic?

AO  Yes. Perhaps I didn’t find the same solutions for my compositions that Picasso would have; I have no idea what he would have to say about that. But I wouldn’t have stuck to the program if I hadn’t had so much fun with it. I did it simply because I felt enthusiasm for this evolution, and it basically worked out. The modern age has given rise to a certain attitude toward the image. In my opinion, it’s not so much a shift to the abstract; rather, it’s closer to the idea that you can extract the meaning of images from the canvas. This was probably already implicit in my representational work.

FN  The motives you chose were always very exaggerated—you worked mostly with iconographically-charged motifs.

AO  That’s right! That was the point—that you had to counteract them. I think that when you’re doing an experiment, you should make it extreme. If I want to make a point about the meaninglessness of an image, I have to find a strong image to challenge it. Practically speaking, they’re chosen based on what they represent for me. Hand: hard to draw. Here is where real talent shows itself. Cocktail glass: a contemporary painter, up for discourse. Landscape: you’ve got to bother with too many shades of brown. And so on. The painter recognizes such things instantly, instinctively.

FN  Did you experiment with classical genres of painting, like portraiture and interiors, in your early work?

AO  Yes, of course, everything there was. I was influenced by my older colleagues, who were constantly harping on that: people like [Georg] Baselitz, [Markus] Lüpertz, [Anselm] Kiefer and [Jörg] Immendorff. Though Immendorff actually took the extreme opposite position—that everything was secondary to meaning.

FN  For you, does it come closer to a tug of war between meaning and form?

AO  You could say that. I’ve had a lot of fun tacking cheesy phrases onto appalling images. That has let me define my painting as a kind of unique sentence construction system. It gave me a starting point to build from. This strategy isn’t followed by any radical Conceptual art practice that would deny or attack connections between motifs and meaning. Instead, it requires me to come up with practical rules. Would you call that passive-aggressive? In any case, it was my way of working around unlovely images or content.

FN  Are there separate categories of motifs in your work? It seems that there are some elements that come from Pop, which you can tell are deliberately constructed and are meant to be understood as a code; and then there are actual “Ur-Motifs,” like the dog, the cow, or the tree, which we can see as a guiding motif in your newest group of work.

AO  I see the tree as a program for my work, not just as a motif. This is the problem: how do you represent something that has no consistent form? A tree really has no form. If you were to take all trees together, you would only be able to elucidate the principle of the thing. And if you were to single out a few trees and look at them, you would notice that they do all kinds of crazy shit with their branches. From that, I concluded that my task as an artist was to make all kinds of crazy shit with my lines—to do essentially the same thing. You become a tree yourself and let your branches grow.

FN  The newer works are starting to look like pictograms again, but in the 1990s, were your trees more expressive?

AO  My approach to painting trees in the 1990s was similar, but I used different, murkier colors and a background. Now I’ve simplified the principle so I can focus on the branches. I’ve fit them into the program.

FN  How should we interpret the graduated red background? It recalls a digital fade-out effect.

AO  It has to do with the image, not with the tree in itself: the background functions to keep three-dimensional effects to a minimum. But it is not important to me to offer interpretations in this way. Someone once told me that it could also be seen as a psychogram, which is a cool thought—a kind of Rorschach test.

FN  Drawing a tree is a test that children have to do at the psychiatrist’s… If you draw no roots, you have a bad character!

AO  Burdened with red flags like these, the paintings become hysterical. They shout: “Interpret me!”

Albert Oehlen (German, b. 1954) is an artist who lives and works in Switzerland.  Upcoming solo exhibitions include  “An Old Painting in Spirit” at Kunsthalle Zurich (May 30 – August 16) and “Home and Garden” at the New Museum in  New York (June 10 – September 13).  In addition, his work is currently featured, alongside Michel Majerus and Laura Owens, in the exhibition “Best Students Best Teachers Best School,” organized by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen at Michel Majerus Estate.

Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen are curators based in Zurich and contributing editors of Kaleidoscope. They are directors of gta exhibitions, ETH Zurich, and initiated the exhibition space and publishing series STUDIOLO.

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