Albert Oehlen's paintings start with skepticism. Doubt runs deep in the German's abstractions, which take nothing for granted and raise thorny questions about such intimate subjects as Oehlen's own abilities and legitimacy as an artist as well as such broad social issues as art's place in life and the point of it all.
That is tough stuff to take on in any work of art, and Oehlen's best paintings do so without getting heavy-handed or portentous. Their acerbic humor, fueled by self-effacing sarcasm, prevents that.
More remarkable is that their messy surfaces manage to become weirdly lyrical celebrations of all sorts of good things. Collaged advertisements, spray-painted streaks, finger-painted smears and loads of loose brushwork create unexpected possibilities. Eye-opening surprises and happy accidents embody a kind of unfussy optimism that is all the more potent because of its intimacy with futility.
At Gagosian Gallery, Oehlen's first solo show in Los Angeles in 11 years consists of 16 big paintings. The five in the first gallery are super-sized doodles, their red, white and black palettes and noodly forms too friendly and pretty to get to the troubling muck that is Oehlen's bread and butter.
That happens in the two remaining galleries, where seven somewhat smaller paintings start out with the conviction that there's no point in going on only to stumble, often haphazardly, onto painting's real power: its capacity to capture in color, texture and shape what it feels like to live in the real world, where there are no absolutes but plenty of room for improvement.
It doesn't work every time, and Oehlen's duds are duds all the way through. But when his paintings do their thing, there's nothing like it.