Dennis Oppenheim and Marjorie Keller

University Of Rhode Island Fine Arts Center

In his newest piece, I Shot the Sheriff, Dennis Oppenheim manipulates a limited number of components—a spotlight, a shotgun, a large, transparent piece of plastic cut into a star-shaped sheriff’s badge, the gallery itself and a continuously played background tape of the refrain from the pop song “I Shot the Sheriff.” As in so many of Oppenheim’s most successful works, he uses combinations of familiar and novel elements, common objects in unusual contexts, juxtapositions frivolous yet complexly metaphoric. Oppenheim focuses on several issues, some of which have concerned him before, by relating, distorting and emphasizing his chosen parts.

A tight, linear triangulation is created between the spotlight, gun and star. The light sits on the floor in a rear corner, shining diagonally across the gallery space and illuminating the star which revolves slowly while suspended in air. The light shines through the transparent badge but also reflects off its surface. Its reflection, that is the richocheted light, creates a constantly moving secondary image of a star shape that extends and compresses as it traces a trajectory around the darkened gallery walls.

The shotgun has also been distorted, its barrel extended more than 20 feet. Mounted a few inches from the floor on the rear wall, the gun is placed with its stock close to the light source. The attenuated barrel is perceived as a simple linear element stretching across that wall, around one corner and along a side wall until it appears that its muzzle is aimed directly at the area of the spiraling badge. Thus a clean, concise configuration is drawn, conforming to the geometry of the gallery.

These components and their interrelationships provide the audience with access to some, if not all, of the artist’s concerns. One primary interest here is the balancing of apparent opposites—direction and reflection, the physicality of the gun with the immateriality of the light beam, the esthetic act and the anti-social act, the continuous verbal admission of a violent action and the absence of any human presence within the installation. The audience is confronted here not by an event, but with the remnants of some activity, the evidence of the admitted action.

Contradiction abounds in the piece—what should be a small metallic symbol of authority (the badge) is a large anthropomorphic transparency; what we expect to be the symbol most highly charged with meaning, the shotgun, is almost entirely overlooked in the darkened space. Instead, it is the tangible beam of light that most activates the space and affects viewers. Many in the opening-day audience would not break the beam of light—as if the artist’s equation of beam with bullet actually made the only source of illumination in the gallery harmful or dangerous.

As in other works, Oppenheim delights in the theatricality of his ensemble—the darkened room, the stagelike spot, the twirling choreography of the star and the repetitious rendition of the refrain on the background tape all add to the dramatic transformation of the gallery space into a world apart, a new environment, more akin to the experience of a movie theatre than an art gallery. It is at once the scene of the crime and the courtroom.

Another major characteristic of the piece is the theme of metamorphosis. All elements are transformed beyond their usual states, not merely by their inclusion in the piece but through the artist’s intended or accidental manipulation. The gun barrel is attenuated, the steady beam of light becomes a moving piece of lead, the badge a sheriff. Symbols metonymically become what they symbolize, objects signify what they are and sometimes what they have never been.

Behind all these complexities, contradictions and manipulations lies what may be the central issue of the piece—an awareness and questioning of certain socio-political issues. The artist (whose only presence in the gallery is the pronoun of the title and the mantra-like refrain) is transformed into an active participant in an anti-social act. Significantly it is an act that never occurred but that is continually admitted to by the plaintive, sing-song voice of the tape. These shifts, set up by Oppenheim, involve the audience as well. Not merely viewers of an esthetic creation, we become in a very real way the witnesses and jury to a capital offense. We are treated to a dramatic ensemble that transforms the gallery space into an environment where much that is familiar must be questioned. As the jury, we are asked to sit in judgment, both mundane and esthetic,on evidence provided from one source: the defendant/perpetrator/artist. Oppenheim’s equation of esthetic standards and judgments with political acts is the strongest and most thought-provoking aspect of this intriguing installation.

Accompanying the premiere of her experimental documentary film, Misconception, the New York-based filmmaker Marjorie Keller recently displayed a series of six small works at the University of Rhode Island Fine Arts Center. The group, entitled collectively “Dedications,” consisted of rectangular photosensitive surfaces printed, collaged and assemblaged with a variety of images, graphic lettering, bits of thread and old glass slides.

Because of the photographic basis for these works or “slides,” as Keller calls them, and particularly because of the artist’s own interests, the viewer might be tempted to see these intimate works as static translations of cinematic imagery. While there is a vague, formal similarity between certain juxtapositions here and in film montage, this source is far less apt for these “slides” than other sources suggested by the artist himself—the acquisition of an old glass slide collection and excerpts from a personal correspondence.

The metaphoric theme of each composition is seemingly culled from the texts of letters. The appeal of these “slides” is that they can be read like a written missive, with images layered, and meanings occurring between as well as within each evanescent detail. The small glass slides, photographs and printed images (composed between sheets of glass, labeled and then bordered in black tape much as a large-scale version of those vintage art historical transparencies) strongly suggest a past reality, even as they are initially being articulated, much as a letter—once written—is already about the past. The artist has even written or drawn photographically on some of the images with a pen whose “ink” was a pinpoint of light, as if to reiterate or participate in these literary parallels.

The pop logos, exotic and mundane architecture, family snapshots and elements of landscape are like poetic metaphors for what must have been an intriguing correspondence, made all the more engaging to her viewers because they are only treated to selected excerpts. As anyone who has been involved in a long correspondence already knows, the struggle in written communication is to make words say more than they mean, to evoke images that go beyond mere literal definition and suggest subtleties of emotion and feelings that might be better left unstated. The richness of any letter-writing campaign is directly related to the control exerted by the correspondents over both the literal and evocative aspects of language. After viewing Keller’s compositions, we are left hoping for more of these personalized and private messages, preferably in similar, intimate doses, much as a faithful correspondent awaits his daily post.

Ronald J. Onorato