In 1989, Oehlen decided to become an abstract painter and began using a tree motif as the theme of his painting. In the same way that Piet Mondrian had investigated dissolution of the figurative shape based on a tree, Oehlen uses this resource “as vehicles for a methodical deflation of content.”
The images in this series have schematic shapes that are tree-like in appearance and black in color: the trunks and branches become silhouettes, similar to Oehlen’s computer drawings, yet meticulously painted by hand with brush and oil paint. According to the author: “When you place those black lines against a magenta background, something alarming happens. Magenta is a hysterical color, somehow. To me, they look like psychopathic trees—psychopathic human trees.”
The chaotic, disorganized structure of the tree branches allows the artist to begin creating a work without knowing where his brushstrokes will bring him. Starting at the center, each branch is a reaction to a prior element, so nothing is established beforehand, only the colors that Oehlen is going to use.
These pictures were painted on a polyethylene-coated aluminum sheet, materials that make them look like advertising billboards. The painter refers to them thus: “I like the stiffness. It has this modern technological feel to it, and it’s actually much easier to paint on than canvas. I wasn’t looking for another surface, I just tried it one day and liked it.” These accidental changes are typical for Oehlen, and are guided by instinct, but are also the result of calculation.