The world-renowned painters Carroll Dunham (*1949 in New Haven, Connecticut, lives there and in New York) and Albert Oehlen (*1954 in Krefeld, lives in Gais, Switzerland), who are enormously influential especially for a younger generation of artists, will be featured together in an exhibition for the first time.
Both artists are known for their extremely independent and complex oeuvre. At the very moment when Albert Oehlen shifted from figurative “Bad Painting” toward abstraction in the late 1980s, Carroll Dunham went in the opposite direction, developing from his early organic abstract work into a surreal figuration in which different characters shape entire blocks of work, which in turn build on each other with an almost conceptual rigor.
While Dunham introduced a figure with a phallic nose wearing a hat in his work beginning in the 1990s, which years later was replaced with female “bathers” with sometimes grotesquely exaggerated sexual organs, Oehlen proclaimed his “post-non-figurative” painting and was one the first artists to work with digital techniques.
Both share the fact that within their self-imposed parameters they continually test the possibilities of painting, tirelessly create signs, and cover up their tracks, while experimenting with techniques, surfaces, and structures in an extremely independent manner.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the subject of trees, which both artists have repeatedly included in their work and interpreted in their own ways. While Albert Oehlen’s trees are bare and leafless, with roots that sometimes dominate the scene and become the figurative impetus in abstract pictures, in Carroll Dunham’s work they are shown blooming, whipped by the wind, or freshly felled and dead.
The combination of Dunham and Oehlen, each of whom sees the other as “probably the world’s best painter of trees,” suggests countless philosophical, theological, sociological, ecological, and of course art-historical views based on the subject of the tree. From the biblical Tree of Knowledge and thus the place of the Fall of Man to the favorite subject of the Romantics, and from Piet Mondrian’s radical modernist fragmentation to Joseph Beuys’s planting of 7,000 oaks, the tree has long been a central subject of our religious, intellectual, and cultural history.
When Carroll Dunham and Albert Oehlen continually declare trees their central subject, they are of course aware of all these cultural- and art-historical references. And yet, for them trees are an opportunity for pure painting, a place for tireless experimentation, a test case for the untapped potential of an ancient analogue medium. Ultimately it is about the question of the abstraction of the world, and thus for Dunham and Oehlen nothing less than the visual meaning of life in art.
The exhibition is a production of the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and is curated by Gregor Jansen and Cornelius Tittel in close cooperation with the artists. Carroll Dunham / Albert Oehlen: Bäume / Trees brings together large-scale paintings spanning three decades and also presents recently created works. These are supplemented with drawings, etchings, and monotypes by both painters in which they explore the subject of trees in their radically independent pictorial languages.
To accompany the exhibition, a richly illustrated catalog with texts on the work of both artists will be published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König in Cologne.
The exhibition will later be shown at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover from June to August 2020.