New York

Dennis Oppenheim

John Gibson Gallery

Two Right Feet for Sebastian is the title of a piece Dennis Oppenheim exhibited at the John Gibson Gallery. On the wall beside this title is a large photograph of a man with a wooden (right) leg. The piece itself consists of two lead pipes parallel between the floor and ceiling, one of which stops about a foot short of the floor. A spot trained on the pipes is the only light in the room. On either side of these pipes, situated midway on adjacent walls, two right boots, each rigged to a small machine, kick the walls at regular, alternating intervals. Microphones amplify the sounds of the kicks through speakers on opposite sides of the room. The sounds are loud and unrelenting, coming from directions opposite their actual and visual sources. In addition, the speakers seem to be crossed, increasing the opposition. The controlled, mechanical rage of the boots kicking in semidarkness is strange and powerful, as is the fullness and shifts of the sound. All this contrasts with the silent, lighted, immobile but also figurative pipes (whose missing section suggests both a missing limb and a foot raised and ready to kick). This piece is simple and concentrated compared to several works which Oppenheim exhibited last year. The work is less literary and dispersed than previously; the combination of these various elements is more total because the parts have very little intrinsic meaning, except as they are combined. Also the experience provided by the combination is as strong as any larger situation to which it refers; it is self-contained and provides an actual experience rather than, as is too often the case in Oppenheim’s work, merely an awareness of his unfulfilled intention. Characteristically, Oppenheim is dealing with a very potent subject matter, but it goes beyond any references to Sebastian and amputation to a less explicit and, for me, more meaningful, sense of rage and loss. The piece is interesting for the way it both conveys and defuses, and, therefore, extends its subject matter, by creating through a certain restraint and precision, a very strong, psychological situation within the gallery.

On the last Saturday of his exhibition, Oppenheim exhibited briefly (due to fire regulations) a video piece he also did a few weeks earlier at 112 Greene. In it a video monitor is placed at the end of a long trough full of turpentine. Again the room is dark and consequently all that is visible is the smooth, shiny surfaces: the screen and the liquid. The tape playing on the monitor shows a close-up of Oppenheim’s mouth and nostrils as he reminisces about art school and beginning as an artist. This image is clearly reflected in the turpentine, the smell of which literally fills the mouths and nostrils of anyone viewing the piece. It is a distinct, intolerable odor endemic to art departments. This piece shares with Two Right Feet a certain beauty and precision, but the only power it has is extremely literal—odor. And besides, Oppenheim’s intention—to evoke his memories of art school and convey his sense of them to his audience—is too obvious and simply too uninteresting to begin with.

––Roberta Smith