THE ÖMEN: Albert Oehlen paintings and Paul McCarthy sculptures
March 8 – May 20, 2023
The actor Ben Becker is playing Albert Oehlen. He is sitting on Oehlen’s studio rooftop and surrounded by empty beer cans. In a listless shrug, he tells the cameraman that they've been left up there by the neighborhood teenagers and that he wishes to leave it so they can see the mess they’ve left. Oehlen is ventriloquizing through the belligerent and maudlin Becker for the docufiction The Painter (2022). Although it is never depicted in the film, Oehlen is directing Becker and telling him what he would be saying in each scene, coaching him through each ecstasy and torment as Becker larps as a larger-than-life version of the artist to produce an Oehlen tribute painting, as Oehlen, on camera from beginning to end. The video and all of the strangeness it produces initiates a kind of mise en abyme to Oehlen and McCarthy’s exhibition Ömen at Gagosian where the dissemination of knowledge and its impossible transference act as its tell-tale heart.
At one point Oehlen, channeled through Becker, says that “Oehlen” is the same sound in German as “ölen,” to oil, and that “ö” is a “dopey, dopey, dopey” sound. McCarthy and Oehlen’s Ömen, then, is a dopey one, a self-annihilating negation of foresight or guidance. Oehlen accesses this painting via antimony, by working and reworking his Omega Man, an androgynous torso he has been using as a shape over the last few years. He tests its perimeter as it wavers between logo, sigil, and sign. It can at once be the Belvedere torso, the symbol of Pi, or neither. The paintings seem to rely on repression, operating under Baldessari’s principle that when you try to cover something up, you inevitably make it more obvious, exposing it for what it is.
While Oehlen is trying to find the transcendental or universal through his commitment to this singular enigmatic shape and its limits, McCarthy’s more quasi-religious work has been restaged to take on new and complex signification, framing the exhibition as an attempt by both artists to address historical influence and legacy. The sight line between Henry Moore Foam (2004) and the chapel pews of The King (2006–2011) is an active and charged zone between history and event. In Henry Moore Foam (2004), McCarthy equivocates the monumental presence of Moore on modern art with the provisional material of polystyrene, a move that seems to both acknowledge the presence of Moore in the twentieth century while criticizing the postmodern shift from stone to foam. The King (2006 – 2011) was first shown at Hauser and Wirth London in 2011. McCarthy appears as a bound and tortured doll. Behind him is an unfinished painting of a Black man, who resembles “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” portrayed by the former football player Isaaiah Mustafa in the viral 2010 Procter and Gamble Old Spice campaign. The McCarthy surrogate, then, seems to be dreaming through advertising, and by extension its virality, surrounded by easels in a studio that is both a gestural sepulcher and a fortress of solitude. In this new restaging, the simulacral McCarthy is facing the massive Henry Moore, facing the past with closed eyes, and unable to finish his assembly line of responses to image swarm and media spectacle that prove worthy ironists with which to contend. Ömen’s installation literalizes McCarthy’s (and Oehlen’s) double bind between history and the present, and their own tension within that stalemate. Surrounding the sepulcher are wrapped up paintings of Henry Fonda, a porn star masturbating and exposing herself, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton caught by paparazzi, and a Playboy cartoon. All of these images communicate the speed of glossy tabloid image circulation while also addressing a motif of intimate acts exposed to the public,as the subject of each half-finished painting navigates their own control over their exposure to varying degrees. They are in various stages of mid-production, some still veiled in visqueen, performing as works being packed up to be shipped out. It is an aesthetic that suspends something while stepping into it midstream, as McCarthy tries to wade into and interpret the sublime of the contemporaneous events of history as they are being produced.
The first time McCarthy showed The King it was exhibited with Shift Adrift, Ship of Fools (2010-11) and Train, Mechanical (2003-2009), an animatronic train of George W. Bush humping pigs in McCarthy’s Disneyified hummel doll aesthetic. It was shown in London during the Obama administration, and was an overtly didactic critique of post 9/11 America that benefited from its distance. However, here it appears post-Trump, or between Trumps, and McCarthy’s naked body in front of an unfinished portrait of a Black male sitter has different meanings and frictions. McCarthy stockpiles frisson and affect by choosing loaded images that are guaranteed to shed and shift their meaning with time. McCarthy and The King’s aesthetic of mid-dress are an acknowledgment that its meaning is still being developed. Implying that the paintings are still being packed up and on their way out the door allows their meanings to collect in unforeseeable ways. It is an open and active system of anxious imagery, to use Vincent Pécoil terminology, a network of images that are unstable and certain to attract new and uncontrollable significance. McCarthy trusts that this format of open sculpture will always presage future stigmas, and become forms of clumsy haruspexing by a blind seer. Oehlen’s paintings then, are stepping into the absence of McCarthy’s more politically didactic works shown in London, and replacing their seething criticality with enigmatic stumbling, material burial, and psychic unearthing, semaphoring the condition of the exhibit itself and replacing the clarity of political criticism with mumbling utterance, self negation, repression, and the excess it forms. The past is closed off, while the contemporary leaves us stuttering in delayed fragments. They are circling the shapelessness of current events, and the drift between Fin de siècle and Götterdämmerung.
Both are enacting forms of reiteration, exploring synecdoches of themselves to discover what new ironies and tensions can be discovered through restaging. There is a rupture, an abyme of history, an absent dead zone that both are giving space to and trying to address. Both are phrasing and rephrasing power and their own relationship to it as they resuscitate and repeat themselves in new contexts. As Oehlen has an actor perform an exaggerated form of himself, we are reminded of McCarthy’s own video piece Painter (1995), and watch as Oehlen steps into McCarthy’s caricature. McCarthy and Oehlen are cycling through painting, sculpture, and video as performance and finding the open system that can be accessed from the performance of a tribute band. Both are sensing the shape of the epoch, its cessation, and their response is a parasocial experience. Within the stalemate of the past and uncertain future, they engage in a wayward pedagogy, a strained heuristic, fumbling to pass down knowledge only for it to be caught up in their own physicality, their shared dialogue, and their own ritualistic repetition of themselves and each other. It’s a physical knowing, a gut, a smear, a shrug. Ultimately what they have learned and know about making only applies to the questions they’ve asked of their own work, and what is passed on is the enthralling bathetic and pathetic spectacle of its performance. The more they close in on the lectern, the more it slips into a Droste Effect, producing recursive mirrors and redundant bathos. Within each synecdoche is the reminder that art and artists are marble-mouthed soothsayers, only able to offer the knowledge of their hands to counteract the dam break of viral images. The oracle is mumbling, but we’re still writing it all down. As Barthes would say, meaning sticks to us, even when we do our best to avoid it.