Oehlen: Spiegelbilder. Mirror Paintings 1982–1990
Mirror Paintings between 1982 and 1990 – between Albert Oehlen’s earliest work, when he found a new freedom in figurative painting with loose brushstrokes and a subversive sense of humor, and the end of the decade, when he painted mostly abstract canvases, riddling his inventive compositions with art-historical references and playful motifs. Oehlen first glued mirrors unto the painting surface as part of an arsenal of sometimes absurd challenges he posed on himself, painting over and around them with thick colors and layers of varnish. The mirrors at the same time became part of the composition, disrupted the pictorial space, and, with a wink, included the figure of the viewer into paintings of living rooms, museum interiors, or stage-like spaces enclosed by heavy brick walls. This conceptually astute series, central to Oehlen’s development over a decade, was shown in two 2019 exhibitions at Galerie Max Hetzler in London and Nahmad Contemporary in New York. Their documentation is accompanied with an essay by Raphael Rubinstein, who reflects on the series’ representational ramifications and art-historical relationships: “The reflective surfaces that stud the Mirror Paintings are emblematic of the relentless speculation, the great openness, that has characterized Oehlen’s entire career,” Rubinstein concludes. “Through his unceasing artistic renewal, Oehlen insists on only one thing: that painting remain an open question, a visual space in which anything might appear, just as anything might appear in one of those glued-on mirrors.”
ALBERT OEHLEN’S MIRROR PAINTINGS, AN INESCAPABLE CONTINGENCY
The Mirror Paintings are not only mirror paintings and paintings with things attached to them, they are also what might be called “room paintings,” that is to say, they always depict some kind of architectural space, usually an interior. The variety of these spaces is striking. Some look like basements partially closed off by cinder-block walls (inevitably evoking the Berlin Wall); others present dramatic views of circular staircases; and many others portray drab domestic spaces. A relatively large canvas, Treppenhaus alt (Old Staircase) features five separate mirrors, as well as subtle passages of purple spray paint, small clumps of paint scrapings, and a stark up/down division (sinuous railings above, a gridded floor below) that could almost read as a visual allegory of nineteenth- versus twentieth-century design. In 1991, just after he had made what remains the last of the Mirror Paintings, Oehlen explained why he paired mirrors and architecture, and also how he went about choosing which spaces to paint: “I only used mirrors in pictures depicting rooms, so that the viewer can place himself in the room. These rooms were chosen not on the basis of design, or architecture, or any other such criteria, but on the basis of their meaning, which I attribute to them in relation to society. Museum, apartment, Hitler’s headquarters, things like that: a summons to appear in the picture.”
Before we consider the kinds of spaces Oehlen chose, and the historical and societal issues those choices invoke, we need to ask: Why attach mirrors onto paintings of interiors and not onto any other kind of painting? Oehlen’s explanation—“so that the viewer can place himself in the room”—focuses on the moment when viewers see their reflection in one of the mirrors, but most of the time Oehlen’s mirrors reflect empty space rather than human figures. This means that the mirrors on the Mirror Paintings generally reflect the same kind of subject matter as depicted in the painting: an interior (assuming, of course, that paintings will nearly always be exhibited inside a building). There is thus a consistency, even a tautological relationship, between what Oehlen paints and what the mirrors in his paintings reflect, which, obviously, wouldn’t be the case if the Mirror Paintings carried images of landscapes or still lifes or human figures.
Since its origins in the 1960s, conceptual art has been fascinated with tautology, with the ways in which works of art can establish internal redundancies that undermine our assumptions about representation. It’s no surprise, then, that conceptual artists frequently utilize mirrors in their work. But despite the depicted rooms plus mirrors equation, Oehlen isn’t interested in tautology. If he were, he probably wouldn’t paint over parts of the mirrors so frequently, often to incorporate them into the depicted scene.
On an untitled painting with four mirrors from 1984 showing a room containing a gray built-in bookcase and a purple curtain, Oehlen placed one of the mirrors so that it covers part of the curtain and bookcase (the mirrors are always attached to already painted surfaces). He then added vertical purple and gray strokes onto the mirror to assimilate it into the picture, though by the mere fact of being painted onto a reflective mirror instead of an absorbent canvas, these brushy lines stand out. The spines of the books are economically delineated with loose brushstrokes of rust orange, charred-wood black, and drab cement gray, while the floor and wall of the room feature copious paint drips—some of them oriented sideways—in deliberately unpleasant shades of scum-like green and corrosive orange. Like nearly all the Mirror Paintings, this canvas offers a wealth of bravura painting moves: layered tempests of broad wet-into-wet brushstrokes, strategic spills of multi-directional drips, declarative lines, brittle lines, flurries of brief brushwork, and what seems like a hundred different textures.