Opinion by Richard Baird Posted 31 December 2019
Albert Oehlen is a German contemporary artist. Working with canvas, he brings together a bricolage of figurative, collaged, abstract and computer-generated elements, with a particular focus on process and self-imposed parameters such as limited colour palettes. His work, as described by the Serpentine Galleries, currently running a Oehlen solo exhibition till February 2020, engages with the history of painting through Expressionist brushwork, Surrealist gestures and deliberate amateurism, and pushes the essential components of colour, gesture, motion and time in fresh new directions. This spirit of bold gestures, layers and new approaches is captured within a slender, unbound artist book designed by London-based Zak Group. This functions as an extension of the exhibition.
Under the rubric of The John Graham Remix series the exhibition brings together selected works by Albert Oehlen from the 1980s until present day. These works are linked by a reshuffling of elements taken from Tramonto Spaventoso by Polish-American artist John D. Graham, which Oehlen found, as a black and white reproduction, in a book. In this, the artist explores and embraces the notion of the inauthenticity of painting, and the process and potential of learning from works that could be considered of lesser value, culturally and creatively. This reconfiguration of art by other culminates in a site-specific centrepiece of large-scale paintings. These turn the domed heart of the Serpentine Gallery into a reinterpretation of Huston’s Rothko Chapel.
The book is characterised by large-format matt-coated sheets. These are unbound and feature full-bleed reproductions of paintings and charcoal drawings. A clear acetate cover, screen-printed with a drawing created specifically for the book, in bright orange and red, sit over the austere sans-serif title and white space of the sheet below. This title is repeated on the cover of a poly bag that encloses and holds the sheets of the book.
Clear and glossy screen-printed sheets. Large-format matt-coated and unbound pages mirror Oehlen’s layered works. The imposition of artwork over the austerity of type (the formalised critique) something seen on Zak Group’s work for Fredrik Værslev As I Imagine Him and Bedow’s work for Daniel Jensen: Current Events serves as a gesture of defiance and of painting over, figuratively speaking, and reconfiguring the work of others.
Details such as the size and placement of the title and the barcode across the poly bag, as well as full bleed images and loose sheets all push the themes of scale and proportionality, as well as, and perhaps more importantly, the reconfigured nature and origins of the series, the booklet itself becoming a grotesques corpse of unexpected juxtapositions of charcoal sketches and full colour collage. Half-works, intersections, changing margins provide unexpected moments of contrast, new and unexpected relationships between works and recurring imagery rendered in different ways. This is the joy of the unbound book concept, the opportunity to run large images through the crease, to be able to experience the complete individual artwork but also understand the works as part of a series. There is an invitation and provocation to the reader to rearrange the booklet and discover and create further relationships, with page numbering offering a reassuring return to the prescribed.
The artwork is augmented by a text by Dawn Adès who offers an alternative perspective on Oehlen’s work. The fully justified sans-serif single column format with a large inside margin lends the text a formal quality, a response to an informal and impulsive artistic process of appropriation, reconfiguration and self-imposed parameters. The text, both in its typesetting and content, and particularly the title on the cover and page numbers, function as anchors for dynamic imagery, never imposing. More work by Zak Group on BP&O.