New York

Dennis Oppenheim

Sonnabend Gallery

Dennis Oppenheim exhibited four pieces in his recent one-man show at Sonnabend. I’m not overly familiar with Oppenheim’s previous work, but it seems to have varied quite a bit, including Earthworks, performance pieces, body art, their combinations, and documentation through film and photography. The work in this show involves aspects of the earlier work. The four pieces differ, but each is concerned with creating, within the gallery, the psychological essence of a larger system or situation. The work is autobiographical in that Oppenheim, either by choice or circumstance, is intimately involved with each system and situation.

In Predictions, two model train engines circle on two intersecting loops of track, one of them spotted by a red light. The spotted intersection is the surrogate for a real one on the L.I.R.R. Oppenheim explains this relationship in a statement on the wall which concludes that “the installation will be activated at every opportunity for as long a period as possible during this exhibition and at subsequent exhibitions, until 11:22 P.M., June 10, 1988.” At this time, Oppenheim intuitively predicts, the real trains will collide. A barely intelligible, double-track tape loop of Oppenheim chanting the predicted time and date of collision repeats as ceaselessly and monotonously as the trains. This piece has a mesmerizing quality; attention is not really sustained, but attention to anything else is made impossible by the endless circling of the trains, their noise, and the noise of Oppenheim’s voice. There is no convincing sense of the larger situation, of the actual intersection, or of the two engines which will spend the next 15 years rushing toward death.

In another piece, Polarities, a slide projector with a dissolving unit (which makes each image dissolve into the following one) alternates the images of two configurations on the gallery wall. They initially suggest constellations. The information is on a lighted podium; the configurations, 500’ long and plotted in a field on Long Island in red magnesium flares, have been enlarged from two drawings, photostatic copies of which are also on thepodium. One drawing is one of the first by Chandra Oppenheim, the artist’s daughter; the other is “presumed to be the last graphic gesture by David Oppenheim,” the artist’s father, “before his death on November 28, 1971.” The configurations are similar, the grandfather’s a narrow parallelogram, the granddaughter’s a looser, oblique triangle. The blending which results from the use of the dissolving unit stresses their similarity. The changing angles and heights from which the pieces were photographed make them seem even more similar by making them at times indistinguishable. The piece involves several kinds of polarities: young/old, first/last (or living/dead), geometric/organic, and obviously small/large. But the combination of the first ones with the last seems arbitrary. The enlargement of the drawings into some kind of Earthwork seems to have little to do with their source, Oppenheim’s relatives, or with the implications of the drawings’ visual similarity.

A third piece called Violations consists of a large number of automobile hubcaps on the floor, over which hangs a video monitor showing a hubcap being pried off the wheel of a car. Evidently Oppenheim stole all these hubcaps from cars in California. In doing so he was, according to the statement on the wall, “creating objects that could turn against me, contaminate, spread my activity through the gallery-museum system, imbuing all with possible legal repercussions.” At first, I thought each theft had been documented by video, which seemed like fairly risky business, if not risky art. When I discovered that it was only a loop, repeating the same removal, the piece became decidedly less interesting and the inclusion of the video considerably more arbitrary. While there are moral implications which give this piece a certain hidden complexity, they might also, if thoroughly considered, eclipse any esthetic judgment.

Adrenochrome is perhaps the most successful piece in the show. According to the accompanying statement, adrenochrome is a “highly toxic and changeable chemical” which when formed in the body can lead to schizophrenia, or “when injected into the bloodstream of humans will reproduce some of the essential characteristics of schizophrenia.” Inside a large darkened room an enormous reddish projection, a 500x magnification of an adrenochrome crystal, covers an entire wall. In front of it, one gram, a tiny pile, of the chemical itself is spotlighted atop a black pyramid, which keeps it safely out of reach. A third part of the piece is a recording of Oppenheim reading a letter concerning a mental breakdown he had ten years ago. It is a letter from the doctor who treated him, describing his illness, as well as his mental capabilities and the drugs used to return him to “increasingly orderly and effective behavior.” It is a short, medical letter, devoid of human feeling, read in a similar voice. The giant image of an invisible, powerful crystal, combined with the proximity of the real thing and the impersonality of Oppenheim’s voice and the doctor’s words both reduce and enlarge the experience of mental illness. Reduce it by making it a matter of explainable chemistry: Both schizophrenia and its treatment are just a swallow away. And enlarge it because the proximity and the reduction to such matter-of-factness is actually very disturbing.

The pieces are too arbitrary, as I’ve already noted, and too dispersed. They lack initial impact and must be thought through by the viewer to some kind of unity. Possibly that thinking through is left too much to the viewervs discretion. Only Adrenochrome combines its various parts into any kind of visual, intellectual, or emotional impact and even so, I’m not convinced the impact is particular to art. The subject matter Oppenheim is dealing with is morbidly potent: a possible train crash, the drawings of his dead father and young daughter, theft, schizophrenia. These items are guaranteed to elicit a response of some sort, wherever encountered. The dispersed, incidental, inconclusive quality in the pieces may be Oppenheim’s attempt to avoid the exploitive potential of his subject matter. But as a result, the accompanying statements and explanations always suggest an intensity which is never substantiated by the pieces, and the intensity is reduced to a form of melodrama. It’s possible that such loaded subject matter cannot be transferred directly to art—it must be transformed or dispersed. Art invariably has a kind of intensity and focus so that such dispersal is fairly deadly.

––Roberta Pancoast Smith