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the ömen: Albert Oehlen paintings and Paul McCarthy sculptures

Gagosian West 24th St, New York

Artists: Albert Oehlen - Paul McCarthy

I have one recurring problem: how to make a painting that is entertaining—to me and to everyone else. It’s a lot of effort, that one idea.

—Albert Oehlen

Gagosian presents the ömen: Albert Oehlen paintings and Paul McCarthy sculptures, an exhibition of recent paintings by Albert Oehlen juxtaposed with large-scale sculptural works by Paul McCarthy.

Installation Views

Oehlen uses abstract, figurative, and collaged elements—often applying self-imposed formal constraints—to disrupt the histories and conventions of modern painting while acknowledging the continuing significance of classical art. Approaching his practice as a perceptual challenge, he moves freely between planned and improvised strategies. And while championing self-consciously “bad” painting characterized by crude drawing and jarring coloration, he infuses expressive gesture with Surrealist attitude, disparaging the quest for stable form and meaning.

McCarthy has been known since the 1970s for performances, videos, sculptures, and installations that confront viewers with a perverse Grand Guignol vision populated by an array of grotesque characters. Pairing a focus on sex and violence with a consciously infantilized approach to human bodily function, he probes the darkest corners of the American subconscious, exposing its synthetic manifestations in the mass media and built environment. McCarthy’s clownish, dystopian twist on utopian European Actionism continues to exert a powerful influence.

Oehlen’s works in this exhibition are focused on his cryptic Ömega Man motif, a genderless humanoid form inspired by the character of Dr. Robert Neville in the dystopian sci-fi action movie The Omega Man from 1971. As the doomed survivor of a global pandemic, Neville symbolizes the runaway scientific development that led to humanity’s downfall. In Ömega Man 6 and 7 (both 2021), the figure’s off-kilter shape emerges from the misalignment of two grids of color; in other paintings its mottled silhouette is positioned against a bright yellow ground, recalling the combination of stark line and intense hues in the artist’s tree paintings. It is also sometimes outlined in blue, red, and yellow, or rendered as a masked area of varied brushstrokes distinguishable only by its sharply differentiated boundaries.

Oehlen invited McCarthy to participate in the ömen in part to draw out a shared fascination with works that are “on the way to becoming something else,” and that may exist in multiple forms and versions. The exhibition also reveals other links, including that between Oehlen’s recent film with Oliver Hirschbiegel, The Painter (2021), and McCarthy’s monumental installation The King (2006–11). In the film, actor Ben Becker portrays Oehlen in the process of producing a new work, juxtaposing and confusing moments of frustration and fulfillment, authenticity and artifice. In McCarthy’s sculptural installation, an elevated platform is surrounded by airbrush paintings of images from popular magazines, produced by a hired illustrator. Also present, seated on a wooden throne, is a nude, bewigged, and partially dismembered silicone mannequin modeled after the artist.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, McCarthy’s Paula Jones, Melinda (2004–09) delves deeper and with similarly coruscating irony into pervasive misogyny by portraying the first woman to denounce Bill Clinton for sexual harassment, while his Henry Moore Foam (2004) pays homage to the titular modernist sculptor via a huge Styrofoam replica of a Moore-inspired work that McCarthy produced as a schoolboy. This weathered-looking figure—the product of an extended process of casting and recasting—echoes the part-abstracted forms in Oehlen’s paintings, underscoring again how both artists toy with and deconstruct the stubborn myth of white, male creative heroism.

An accompanying catalogue features essays by John Kelsey on Oehlen’s work and Hamza Walker on McCarthy’s.

Installation view, the ömen: Albert Oehlen paintings and Paul McCarthy sculptures at Gagosian West 24th St, New York, March 8 - April 22, 2023. Artwork © Albert Oehlen, © Paul McCarthy. Courtesy Gagosian. Photo: Rob McKeever

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