New York

Dennis Oppenheim

M. L. D'Arc Gallery

Dennis Oppenheim’s art has frequently been projected through the actions of his own children. He has explored questions of heredity through studies of facial expressions, transferral of fingerprints, and other actions shared with or executed through his family. Search for Clues, a recent multimedia installation, extends this idea, reconstructing his vision of death as a dream of his seven-year-old daughter.

A large oriental rug floats about two feet off the floor of the darkened gallery, immediately staking out the work’s magical territory. A puppet (an image of the artist himself which has appeared in previous pieces) lies face down with his hands dangling off the far edge, a knife stuck in his back. A TV monitor on the floor in a corner shows an identical knife, thrown repeatedly into an ambiguous, slowly revolving surface. A child’s voice drones on disjointedly about the knife spinning in her dreams, the carpet traveling through space, its edges limiting life and art, and the perpetuation of her father’s art through her. She seems to find all this quite beautiful, not in the least terrifying.

The video, tape-recording and weird scenario locate the work as much in the context of avant-garde theater as the post-Minimal climate of Oppenheim’s earlier work. Like some theater, Robert Wilson’s, for example, Search for Clues demonstrates a demented sense of tight, even hysterical control, imposing an esthetic order on fragmentary, often frightening ideas.

Oppenheim combines his fantasy life and his family in a situation which is convincing as art, without seeming exploitative. But what kind of art is it—literature (the monologue is full of metaphor, symbol and word plays between edges, knife, carpet, life and death), surrealism (the magic carpet, the murdered puppet), video? The ease with which Oppenheim cuts across all kinds of boundaries suggests that his own imagination is his ultimate medium. There is something at once alienated and humane about his work. Though he often trespasses on unsettling territory, he does so with a gentleness that avoids becoming pathological; one is conscious, above all, of a pervasive sense of seriousness and dignity.

In Color Blind, the show’s second work in the next room, a quadraphonic tape-recording of Oppenheim’s voice triggered a set of overhead theatrical spotlights. These blinked and flashed, bathing the darkened room in red, yellow, green and blue. The lights revealed clusters of oversized foam rubber mice against the walls or cowering in corners. The four soundtracks, which often spoke simultaneously, instructed the mice to react according to the colors of the lights (when the voices said “Red,” the red lights would go on, etc.). The tracks tend to obscure each other, but eventually the message is borne in on us that the mice are blind, and thus cannot respond to the light-related commands.

This piece, like the first, operates on many levels. The “Three Blind Mice” association is unavoidable, again invoking childlike imagery, though not specifically that of his daughter. Behind the simplicity of that ditty one begins to sense more powerful, sinister forces. The use of mice alludes to behavioral experiments, and their blindness can be taken as a metaphor for the frustrations and deficiencies that haunt human and artistic experience. That enigmatic carving knife surfaces again. Whether or not it has any relation to the first piece we can only guess.

We are again reminded of Wilson, who, of course, derived many of his strategies from ’60s art. The jumbling of words deliberately fragments any train of thought; however, our awareness of individual sounds and meanings is heightened. As in Wilson’s “operas,” language provides the basic structure for both Oppenheim’s works. In Search for Clues verbal and visual imagery combine to produce a sense of dreamlike disembodiment. Color Blind comes closer to Wilson’s numbing of meaning through repetition. We get the gist of the words, but their function as transmitters of ideas is deliberately impaired.

(A third work, Back to the Mountains, was not working during any of my three visits to the show.)

––Nancy Foote