New York

Dennis Oppenheim

Visual Arts Museum

Ruscha’s show, working in the arena of our sensory hierarchies, is not the only one reviewed here which deals with the conflict between the verbal or rational, and the evocative or intuitive, components of the brain. Dennis Oppenheim zeroes in on the same issue as the theme of his installation Well. In a social sense, language is one of the ways we control the world, but it is also the mode of communication most used to rule us. This paradox is also true in a personal sense: language liberates, but it binds; it is a trap. And indeed, while the audio part of Well argues against the fragmenting, analytical half of the brain, and thus for the unconscious, silent partner, the installation’s sculptural component—a basin of ink fitted into the top of a truncated cone—traps the words from the speakers hanging directly over it, symbolically liquifying formed glyphs into the fluency of shapeless thoughts.

This soundtrack delineates the basic metaphor of ink as the fluid container of potential letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, pages and books. The ink is potent with infinite possibilities in its unformed state. It is the reservoir of consciousness, a pool of thought. Oppenheim raises the question of creative potency being used up, spent, exhausted—you cannot write with a dry pen. Like Icarus, the artist at the height of his career feels guilty about his past success; he worries about being burnt out. “They gonna find out I didn’t know what I was talking about,” he says. And Acconci, on his card in the 1976 Image Bank Postcard Show, typed: “Now that we know we failed (and what do you think, Dennis?) Now that we say something else under our breath (and what do you thi [here the text runs off the card].” Dennis thinks the well looks full, but . . .

On a second track of the audio, the speakers tell little stories which are morbid, obscene slapstick, or else oddly innocent (“Joe could carbonate a drink just by looking at it”). Anecdotes are usually more interesting than the generalities that arise from them; Oppenheim’s are the other way around. They seem to be coined ad hoc to demonstrate and fit the extended metaphor. “When he walked by his ears kept popping the fence post: He knew something inside was trying to get out. Not through words which he tried to use but couldn’t.” There is no pretense of parable or epigram, only an epigram openly carrying the themes of eruption and flow in body and nature.

The visual ambience of the installation resembled the rarified spaces of Metaphysical painting, enhanced, as it was, by the metaphorical audiotape. Aqua-colored floodlights washing against the walls, the dark round pool of liquid and the small bell-shaped speakers were all quite pastoral. Like animals milling around the trough at feeding time, the visitors tended to pace about and around the well. The viewers’ circular motions, tightly tied to the perimeter of the conical structure, were determined partly by the structure’s relatively small scale, and partly to its ragged audibility—the pool of ink was soaking up the soundtrack, rendering the upholstery of diction cushioned and sunken. The radius of decipherability of text practically equaled the radius of the well. Such a fusion of audio “size” with that of the physical structure limited the installational resonance of the work, creating instead a curious talking sculpture.

The scale of this piece, personal in size and distance, and temporal on a ten-minute cycle, made it something of a shrunken adventure in comparison with Oppenheim’s customary jumbo-size dramatics. It is, as well, a rehash of constants in his vocabulary of concerns—almost a variation on a theme. But even with that against it, Well is still a nice piece. It is a pleasure to reflect on Oppenheim’s oeuvre through the Well’s clear simplicity.

Interestingly, while Acconci continues to be fascinated with windows (an introvert’s obsession), Oppenheim tends toward central, rounded imagery. He either cherishes the center as a dramatic focus or bangs, kicks, projects, through the wall, the edge of the carpet, against his head. The metaphor is to pass from the core through phenomenal reality to beyond, as in this piece, with the ink pool sitting stolidly in the middle and the blue lights diffusing around the perimeter of the space. He wants, I think, an art so liquid it can never be trapped.

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