3.5 / Review

From Chicago: Painthing On the Möve

By Randall Miller November 16, 2011

Albert Oehlen has been making meaty abstract paintings and pop-tinged collages for decades. In his solo show Painthing On the Möve, at Corbett vs. Dempsey, neither one makes an appearance. The works on view here are a series of variations on an abstract graphic armature.

Despite the layers of irony wrapped around the title, Painthing On the Möve seems an apt name for an Oehlen show; throughout the artist’s prolific career, his work has rarely stood still for very long. While most of Oehlen’s past images have featured a frenetic density of visual information, the two large paintings and ten smaller works on paper at Corbett vs. Dempsey are comparatively understated. These sparse compositions consist mostly of black lines on white or dichromatic picture planes. The images bear comparison with the artist’s series of “computer paintings” created in the 1990s using early computer graphics programs that yielded highly pixilated lines and shapes. The work presented here, however, employs no such technological mediation, relying instead on charcoal, pencil, and paint on paper or canvas.

Amongst the twelve pieces assembled at Corbett vs. Dempsey, stylistic similarities, parallel rhythms, and recurring motifs—as well as the emphasis on linear mark-making and near absence of color—create a uniformity that some viewers may find a little dull. Hip, beautiful, emotive: these are not words that readily come to mind when describing Oehlen’s work. Rather, it has an academic quality. There is wit, too, but it’s subtle and dry as a bone. These works demand some brainwork and perhaps require a pre-established appreciation of abstraction from their audience.

The show’s esoteric nature is partly derived from its inspiration: the work of improvisational jazz conductor Lawrence “Butch” Morris. Like jazz improvisation, Oehlen’s work combines a variety of linear structures in order to create abstract compositions. It is a challenge to write descriptively about those structures and the ways in which the different pieces relate to one another because of the narrow set of parameters Oehlen works from. The fact that only Conduction 4 (2010) and Conduction 11 (2011), the two larger paintings named after Morris’ “Conduction” musical series, are titled adds to this challenge. I will largely forgo the mind-numbing exercise of descriptive citation so as not to confuse the eight untitled works (all from 2010)  and speak more generally about common themes.


Conduction 11, 2011; charcoal and acrylic on canvas; 82.75 x 106.25 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago.


Untitled, 2010; paper, ink, and pencil on paper; 10.25 x 8.25 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey.

The smaller works on paper contain their own unique characteristics, but they are more dynamic when viewed as part of a broader exploration. Like one of Morris’ jazz performances, Oehlen’s works on paper deal with layering and collage. These effects are unassuming. In many of the pieces, three or four fragments of drawings are pasted side by side. Lines that begin in one section are connected to marks made in another section. In some places this process creates grids, while in others it is simply a device for merging the fragments together. The effect is a fluid and seamless integration of subtly different parts. Line width is another technique used to create layering: darker, heavier lines appear to come forward while thinner lines recede, producing an illusion of depth. And line variation is used to mimic certain optical art effects, where the repetition of closely spaced wavy lines suggests topographies and light gradations, as in Conduction 11. These devices are used sparingly, just another visual resource for Oehlen to mash together in a heap of graphic systems.

The tension between abstraction and representation is a key element to these works. Some lines are gestural and meandering, but almost all are thin and precise. Some lines form grids that look like architectural plans; others begin to coalesce into recognizable signs, symbols, letters, and likenesses without ever reaching full development. Oehlen seems to be approaching modernist questions through a postmodern lens; his work has a semiotic quality to it, but Oehlen’s marks never quite materialize into signs. Every aspect of his collages that appears to be a hard-and-fast rule is brilliantly upended. The artist’s exploration in this series may not be very broad, but it is certainly deep.

And ultimately that is what this collection of work seems to be: a lesson in creative exploration within given limits. It isn’t particularly dynamic, but it’s not trying to be. It is the material evidence of a creative individual working through a series of questions, like sketching. But just when a stable explanation for the works seems to emerge, they reveal themselves to be something else.



Painthing On the Möve will be on view at Corbett vs. Dempsey, in Chicago, through December 3, 2011.

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