Masterclass of Oliver Osborne in pictorial discipline

If anyone were to analyze the role of nostalgia in contemporary art, it would be hard to find a better case study than the monstrous talent and psychedelic old-fashioned painter Oliver Osborne.

The artist’s current exhibition at Tanya Leighton, Berlin consists of a set of oil-painting portraits on linen canvas, sharply contrasted by the streamlined conceptualism of three larger canvases. One of these, the largest piece in the show, is a composite of four separate canvases. Their surfaces are all intact, except that the title of the exhibition, “German Afternoons” is embroidered on one of them in small, elegant red writing, as well as a few drops of paint, imitated using the same red thread. Given the lack of paint in this painting, the blood-like drops slyly pay homage to the often stated but unrealized death of the medium. The second of the show’s large blank canvases is also constructed from four sections, hung in pairs on either side of a projected section of wall. The third is painted with a cloudy pastel grid, echoing the shape of the canvas frame.

Oliver Osborne, ‘German Afternoons’, 2022, exhibition view, Tanya Leighton, Berlin and Los Angeles. Courtesy: the gallery and Tanya Leighton, Berlin and Los Angeles; Photography: Gunter Lepkowski

These pieces are foils to the sadistic, labor-intensive portraits in the exhibition, eight of which depict an androgynous person gazing calmly at the viewer: shoulders turned a quarter turn, face framed by hair thick and buoyant. Although he appears to be the same person in each painting, dramatic variations in skin tone – hues of pink, golden yellow, stony green – cast the characters as variations on a single avatar. The same principle applies to two portraits of a jowly Friar Tuck type. One has gray skin as if caught by the sheet of death, while the epidermis of the other is sunburn red in the third degree and amplified by a lemon-yellow sky. Plant leaves often adorn their models at oddly architectonic angles, while two other portraits, which present rubber factories, form a ligature to the heavy Osborne factory labor of recent years.

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Oliver Osborne, Portrait of a fat man (after Robert Campin), 2022, oil on linen, 28 × 26 cm. Courtesy: the gallery and Tanya Leighton, Berlin and Los Angeles; Photography: Gunter Lepkowski

From the flora to the humanoid faces to the art of painting, nothing is quite what it seems. This includes Osborne’s former worldliness, his pictorial technique bears witness to this, the extreme subtlety of which springs from the Netherlands between the 15th and 17th centuries. Then there are its backgrounds, dark like those of 19th century symbolism, and the glossy black tiered frames that envelop each painting and are so sultry they are cool. This show is a masterclass in the discipline by a new old master, and Osborne divulges his artistic influences with equal accuracy. While all the works are titled German afternoons followed by a number, or in one case left untitled, the sickly brother is named in honor of an enigmatic Dutch master: Portrait of a fat man (after Robert Campin) (2022).

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Oliver Osborne, ‘German Afternoons’, 2022, exhibition view, Tanya Leighton, Berlin and Los Angeles. Courtesy: the gallery and Tanya Leighton, Berlin and Los Angeles; Photography: Gunter Lepkowski

There is an unlikely intimacy here as classical techniques are painstakingly intertwined with a desire to experience historical painting by reinventing it. Particularly idiosyncratic is Osborne’the technique of repeated layering and sanding, so that the undercoats of the paints shimmer on the surface like mirages. German afternoons n°11 (2022) pushes this strategy into trans-technological sublimity, with a dubbed subject similar to flicker of a dying computer screen. Meanwhile, the paintings’ radioactive backgrounds suggest an art-historical fever dream.

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Oliver Osborne, German afternoons n°11, 2022, oil on linen, 48.2 × 44.1 cm, Courtesy: the gallery and Tanya Leighton, Berlin and Los Angeles; Photography: Gunter Lepkowski

Osborne simultaneously embraces and rejects old-school painting via a technique so mechanically refined that it borders on no technique at all. Almost twisted in its internal incongruity, this approach expresses the conflict inherent in its aesthetic tastes being stuck in the metaphysical blur of the past – a kind of nostalgia, of course. Osborne’s skill lies in knowing that his job is not to heal but to echo and amplify that awkward feeling, and that requires an unwavering embrace of the antediluvian thrill of painting.

‘German Afternoons’ by Oliver Osborne is on view at Tanya Leighton, Berlin, until 27 August.

Main image: Oliver Osborne, German afternoons n°22022, oil on linen, 45.2 × 40.2 cm, Courtesy: The Gallery and Tanya Leighton, Berlin and Los Angeles; Photography: Gunter Lepkowski

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