Stunning bit of muscle

    This is precisely how Oehlen seems to want it. The good-picture, bad-picture routine pulled by his art is deliberate. All over the Whitechapel, he goes out of his way to contradict himself. Over here, he’s full colour; over there, he’s grey. This one’s as green as a landscape; that one’s as pink and purple and yellow as a fairground ride. Most noticeably, Oehlen switches from abstract to figurative with startling insouciance. The knots of muscular abstract paintwork that are his default mode will suddenly part like the Red Sea to reveal a face, a skeleton, a tree. And you never know when one of these figurative apparitions will appear next.

    This defiance of logic is, I suspect, a generational thing. Oehlen was born in 1954 in Krefeld, in North RhineWestphalia. Have you been there? Ouch. Belching chimneys on the skyline, ubiquitous chemical stinks, the pitiless throb of manufacture. Nobody coming from Krefeld in 1954 could possibly have emerged with a straightforward sense of beauty. The cold war had just begun as well, remember. The German id had been chopped into easts and wests, capitalists and communists, goodies and baddies. Small wonder an entire generation of German artists turned out so angry and fractured and patchy.

    Oehlen’s pal and drinking buddy Martin Kippenberger, who was born a year earlier and who has just had a madcap retrospective of his own at Tate Modern, played this same game of frantic pictorial unsettlement. No two of his pictures were similar, either. Oehlen’s strategy as a painter has always been to keep things happening. To explore. To change. To go the other way. He shares, too, Kippenberger’s sense of humour: that annoying preference for not seeming to take anything seriously. The Whitechapel exhibition is called I Will Always Champion Good Painting, but a second Oehlen show, in Bristol in September, is called I Will Always Champion Bad Painting. In truth, since he gave up conceptual art in about 1988 and began painting instead, what Oehlen has actually championed is variety. We should not, therefore, be surprised that the results are so mixed.

    The Whitechapel exhibition surveys his work since he became a painter. The downstairs gallery has the earliest pictures, some lurid, some lovely, while the upstairs has the grey paintings, paintings with photographs glued to them and some collages. Thus, the whole display veers this way and that like a man dodging a sniper. Apart from this restlessness, the only other constant in the show is a spectacular sense of released energy: the aforementioned roar of German horsepower. From the width of some of Oehlen’s brush strokes, you’d assume he was painting with a broom. What mighty gales of colour he whips up.

    In the unusually lurid Evilution — a typical title — we watch the final stages of a war at the fairground between a crazy yellow Dodgem and a crazy pink one. Here it zips, there it zips — bang, they collide. Look carefully and you’ll eventually find some skulls hidden about this extra-noisy picture as Oehlen turns momentarily figurative to appropriate the mood and the look of an American hot rod. The same scary visual impulses that bring us skull tattoos and Iron Maiden T-shirts are being investigated. Does Oehlen really expect us to love these lurid heavy-metal effects? Of course not. Our job is to feel their force and forgive them their ugliness. Yet across the room from the godawful yellow-and-pink catastrophe is a lovely painting from 1989 of a tree. It is leafless. Its twisted branches and roots form the striking black silhouette of a survivor. And the gentle greens and beiges against which it is silhouetted seem to describe a misty lake. How romantic. The mood and world-view of the great 18th-century German tree-hugger and pessimist Caspar David Friedrich have been updated and recut in an extra-large modern size.

    The Whitechapel is claiming that Oehlen is one of the artists “bringing painting back to the forefront of contemporary art”. What they mean is that German painting is currently the art world’s big squeeze, the stuff in fashion. A generation of German painters, most of whom are substantially younger than Oehlen, is being collected hungrily by all those Miami millionaires and new Chinese yuppies who are busily stoking the art market to explosive levels just now.

    Oehlen’s role in this carefully orchestrated art-market feeding frenzy is to be the elder statesman, the éminence grise of the YGAs. It’s a role that Kippenberger could have played, too, if dissolution hadn’t killed him first, in 1997. All the young Germans skip gaily from figuration to abstraction as if it were not an issue. Oehlen himself describes his art as “post-non-representational”, which I take to be one of his little jokes because it’s such a meaningless phrase. But those of us who remember exactly how serious, and even deadly, were the conflicts between abstractionists and figurativists when Oehlen was imbibing his early influences in the 1970s and 1980s, will recognise this refusal to take sides as another of his calculated gestures of insouciance.

    While the paintings downstairs are 90% abstract, the upstairs section of the show begins with a set of fully figurative collages, cut out and pasted from the pages of various German newspapers and American lifestyle magazines. They are quite amusing. An advertisement for the Presidents’ Day Sale at a furniture store called Carls (sic) shows a portrait of Stalin on offer among the discounted settees and coffee tables. There’s also a cannon going, and a gorgeous African-American blonde who might be Beyoncé Knowles. It’s mild satire on that jocular lower level that characterises central European political humour. When you’re stuck between superpowers, it’s best not to protest too seriously.

    There’s only so much you can do with collage. And all of it was done a long time ago. So Oehlen’s contributions to the genre seem slight and hardly worth the bother. Unless you understand them as further strategies for getting himself going on a new tack. Collage works on the Frankenstein principle: lots of disparate bits are combined to create a new whole. Oehlen’s paintings are assembled in the same way. That’s why they are so damn unpredictable. I’m not sure if the discontinuity of collages struck an existing chord with Oehlen, or whether he actually learnt discontinuity from them, but either way this slight medium has had a powerful impact on all his picture-making manoeuvres.

    Figurative bits pop up out of nowhere in his work. Foregrounds become backgrounds. Monochromes clash with rainbows. And you soon notice that the best paintings are those in which this battle with disparity has been won and not lost. Most of these successes, rather surprisingly, are upstairs, among Oehlen’s latest works. How pleasing to see that the old man of new German painting is getting better and better. His stuff is so muscular, you don’t think of it as surrealism, but putting unexpected things next to one another was bread and butter to the surrealists, and Oehlen’s sneaky debt to Dali is made clear by a grabby picture of a giant eye floating above a desert horizon. The huge eye has been cut out of a billboard photograph, so all those years of making collages haven’t really been wasted.

    The best painting in the show pays homage to Magritte, with a huge interior of a fireplace. The blazing fire is actually another slab of photo cut from a picture of a burning forest. So it borrows the scale and fierceness of a serious conflagration. This huge painting looms over you to the height of a double-decker bus. And as you stare up at it, a weird change of tenor occurs. The simple domestic interior begins to assume the emotional dimensions of a disaster movie.