Diversity, Excess, and Academicism

John Haber
in New York City

Albert Oehlen, Vanessa Maltese, and Jonathan Gardner

Zachary Leener, Anne Neukamp, and More

Albert Oehlen has never looked more relevant. More the pity.

For his retrospective, the New Museum speaks of "his immeasurable influence," but museums are like that. Younger painters in a global art scene are more likely to take him for granted—and that, in a way, is his appeal. Oehlen was in the thick of things starting in the early 1980s, as Neo-Expressionism helped to blow away the consensus that had become modern art, and he still throws in everything he has and then some. Born in 1954, he found friends and collaborators in a rising generation of German artists, but he also resists their overriding demand for shocks, heroics, and a signature style. Now that movements have given way to hybrids, Oehlen along with two younger Americans, Vanessa Maltese and Jonathan Gardner, recall when diversity was postmodern. Together, they and others also ask when diversity and excess become academicism. Albert Oehlen's Party Dreams (photo by Luhring Augustine, private collection, 2001)

Switch on a dime

Neo-Expressionism in its first wave was determined to loom larger than life. Anselm Kiefer with his panoramas of paint and straw, Georg Baselitz with his world turned upside-down, and Gerhard Richter with photorealism and a squeegee—each was out both to remake and to question German history, the outsize role of the artist, and the claims of art itself. In person, Baselitz is still getting in his claims to fame, along with embarrassing digs at women in art. Oehlen's circle was more spontaneous, but still obsessed with itself. With Georg Herold in brittle sculpture akin to Alberto Giacometti, Martin Kippenberger looking back to the very first round of German Expressionism, or Jörg Immendorff in an overexcited tumble of bodies, art asserted its place between agony and irony. Kippenberger even turned for an exhibition poster to Jeff Koons.

By comparison, Oehlen is downright laid back. He comes closest to Sigmar Polke, his teacher, with primary colors, broader and lighter brushwork, breaks in the composition, and allusions all but buried in layer upon layer of abstraction. He always stops short of narrative, and his appropriations are especially hard to find. One should have no trouble spotting the beer can amid Saints and Fighters from 1997, but are those shelves, cars, and color samples in other paintings from the last ten years? Oehlen calls them his "switch paintings," a follow-up to his "computer paintings," and they switch on a dime—or maybe a few hundred grand. Irony gets along just fine, thank you, with enthusiasm.

Hence, of course, the relevance. For big canvases with everything but the kitchen sink, think "Forever Now" at MoMA and "zombie formalism." For computer assisted design, think of the latest New Museum triennial, but with dated software. For the hazy boundaries between realism and abstraction, look everywhere in the galleries. Oehlen describes his procedures from the late 1980s as pushing against rules and limits, like Sol LeWitt on drugs, but the rules and limits are impossible to see. Mostly paint just does its thing, in a way certain to get critics and collectors gushing.

Oehlen's retrospective could stand for the dark underside of relevance, only with little care for darkness. Now that anything goes, why worry about where it is going? The museum's founder, Marcia Tucker, once celebrated "bad painting," and yesterday's bad has become today's good. Even the display looks disturbingly relevant. The curators, Massimiliano Gioni with Gary Carrion-Murayari and Natalie Bell, stick to just over two dozen paintings on two floors, like a split-level Gagosian Chelsea. For once, the New Museum's awkward and oversized stacked boxes serve an artist well.

And they do serve him well, with big art that is difficult to remember but easy to enjoy. An arrangement by subject is asking for trouble, and even the series do not hang chronologically, but the show's small scale makes them easy enough to piece out. Its title, "Home and Garden," alludes to a self-portrait as the goddess of spring, although gender seems not to matter all that much. It looks back to his first series of self-portraits, like Kippenberger but wearing his irony on his sleeve. In his one installation, a self-portrait on canvas lies in a real bed, poking himself in the eye with a real brush. A smaller painting rests on a wooden box in the stairwell, with pendulums that refuse to keep time.

Then come the first and pastier abstractions, with those unseen limits. The "computer paintings" of the 1990s, in black and white, might pass from a distance for indoor plumbing as seen by Fernand Léger, but they represent only doodles in a paint program. Oehlen expands them before printing, so that pixels dominate and disturb the self-expression, before adding washes like rust stains from the plumbing. Finally come the freer and busier combinations of silkscreens, posters, and overpainting. They could leave one downright nostalgic for the grandeur and absurdity of Neo-Expressionism before him—or for the Modernism that it left behind. And that could be their true relevance to art today.

Mixed doubles

Vanessa Maltese and Jonathan Gardner make an enigmatic pair. Both, too, have enigmas all their own. What are those shapes that Maltese outlines in white? They may connect into seemingly random squiggles or a tracery akin to stained glass. They approach doubling, with broken symmetries that make the painting's ground shift before one's eyes. Overpainting picks up the shapes beneath but as their shadows.

Who are Gardner's women, again doubled and half hidden? One of two tennis players, their identical skirts revealing identical underwear, raises her free arm to cover half her face. The other hardly appears above her waist and the net. What about his smokers, the smoke from their cigarettes masking their eyes? Paintings by both artists share the room with Maltese's sculptures and their shadows. She calls them Backrests, in black or white fiberboard, but one's spine would have to dip early and often to find rest.

The two are even more of a puzzle together. She paints hard-edged abstractions, while he paints soft-edged women. She has a geometry out of Pattern and Decoration, but in the crisp colors of a graphic novel. If she also alludes to design, she says that she draws on Michael Graves, the postmodern architect. Gardner quotes early Modernism, and his only affinity to Postmodernism is in the quotation. It does not even require quotation marks.

And quote he does, liberally. The smokers might have stepped out of Leger's Le Grand Dejeuner, but too late for breakfast or for grandeur, while their smoke peels off into clouds out of René Magritte. A tennis player adapts Balthus for a game of, sure enough, doubles. Two other women, in profile one behind the other, preside over fish out of Salvador Dalí—and I leave it to you to hunt for more. The painter updates them all for the Lower East Side today, while making explicit their sexuality and their fears. Breasts threaten to slide onto the court like tennis balls.

For all their differences, Maltese and Gardner slide into one another as well. Her curvaceous shadows hang next to his nubile women, and her white grid echoes in his tennis court. They even share the same yellow. Gardner is into design, too, as in the flooring beneath his smokers. His one abstraction, give or take the illusion of steel balls, has a light weave close to hers. Maltese, in turn, has what might pass for cherries—obscured, her title notes, by a representation of a backrest.

They might stand for two sides of Modernism, in Cubism and Surrealism. They might stand, too, for two sides of Postmodernism—doubling Modernism and doubling itself. He helps her by bringing out the humor, while she helps him by taking painting into the room. She paints on panel, like one more element of furniture or gallery architecture, and her sculpture neatly frames the vertical loops of the actual radiators. Maybe Modernism never was all that opposed after all to design or to sex. All pomo can do is turn up the pairings and the heat.

Flip, fun, and scary

Zachary Leener and Anne Neukamp might be competing to see who can be more flip and fun, but also more up close and scary. His sculpture takes over the room, but no matter. She still gets the walls, for paintings of things that one can hold in one's hand and, with luck, use to make oneself at home. They are also cold and confrontational. Those keys look a little too old-fashioned to gain entry anyway. The telephones belong to landlines no longer able to communicate.

installation view of Zachary Leener and Anne Neukamp (Lisa Cooley gallery, 2015)Neukamp combines expressionist smears with Pop Art in 3D. The first might be traces of the second, and in fact the phones leave their silhouettes nearby in white. The flatter areas also set an overall palette of cool, mute tones, and then a rope pops out in front of a tart red. One could get tangled up in it, which might even help since the phones have lost their cords. And what is that silvery mass at the center of one canvas? If there is a "zombie formalism," this is something else again back from the dead.

Leener has shiny surfaces, too, except where a porous pink sticks out. The color surely stands for clay itself, as formalism might require, but also for human flesh—especially when it is abruptly sliced off. The protuberances come in all sorts of combinations, like biomorphic abstraction given symmetry and yet running wild. The slick blue-black coating makes them that much more polished, comic, or sinister. So do light bulbs, multiplying to the point of switchboards for Neukamp's phone bank. Leener gives each bulb its own cord, plugged into its own outlet, so that the yellow trails on the floor and the rewiring of the gallery create more obstacles.

The artist pairing riffs on Modernism and Post-Modernism, like the Neo-Neo of Maltese and Gardner. It also points to a new normal, although a norm that has to compete with plenty of others. Painting and photography everywhere are messing up the distinction between abstraction and representation or between media. This version, though, channels the confusion toward discomfort with the body. It borrows from comic strips, the Internet, and street art, but maybe most from Neo-Expressionism. Oehlen at the New Museum provided all but a survey before its time.

Take another fall pairing, in Chris Hood and Magalie Guérin. Hood layers what might pass for testicles or emoticons on top of mottled surfaces. Then he returns to the surfaces and works them over some more. Guérin's smaller paintings off to the side provide a grounding in early Modernism. Or take Clara Brörmann all by herself. A straight or tilted square hangs above a vertical canvas, as Kopfbilder (or "Head Paintings"), in a compendium of abstract styles from primitivism to Brice Marden.

As it happens, actual Neo-Expressionism is in town, with its own multipanel versions of the body. Born in 1938, Hermann Nitsch has been flinging blood and acrylic for some time now, in both black and red, and the Lower East Side pulls off practically a retrospective. At its sentimental heart, though, are works that hang like altarpieces or crosses, with clothing thrown in for good or outsize measure. Blame the Austrian for still wrestling with his beliefs or just admire the drips. Him aside, is the present-day outpouring a freeing up or a Neo-Mannerism, and is it too serious or too glib? Maybe both—but it was moving enough that Nitsch, no longer able to stand for long much less continue his many rituals in performance, attended more than one day in person.

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Albert Oehlen ran at the New Museum through September 13, 2015, Vanessa Maltese and Jonathan Gardner at Nicelle Beauchene through June 28, Zachary Leener and Anne Neukamp at Lisa Cooley through October 18, Chris Hood and Magalie Guérin at Lyles & King through October 4, Clara Brörmann at Nicelle Beauchene through October 11, and Hermann Nitsch at Marc Straus through October 18.


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