New York

Dennis Oppenheim

John Gibson Gallery

It is difficult to talk about the art of Dennis Oppenheim, to order it into a concerted body of work, for it articulates itself in ways that defy language and that resist such ideas of order as “continuity” or “oeuvre” or even “artist.” What relates an otherwise diverse practice (from earthworks to puppet performances) seems to be an imperative to do two things: one is the desire to let (what Oppenheim calls) subliminal or “root impulses,” and the forces of the material(s) used, bespeak themselves somehow; the other is the necessity, as a major contemporary artist, to render work that is intellectually articulate on concerns of the day. Such an imperative is best expressed in the word “radicality,” in the sense of both basic and advanced. (Radicality is also the title of a work in which flares were set up to spell just that word.) More often than not, the art is about a redefinition of things, a rupture or a discontinuity: no one context, no one property of a material or a system, is allowed to define it. So it seemed inconsistent when, five years or so ago, Oppenheim began to work more within the gallery—but such inconsistency is the crux of the art. Relocated in such a space, it would seem more conventional; however, this is not the case.

In the recent show there are two models for actual projects, a ramp and an elevator. Oddly, they are not prosaic; one is compelled to think again about such distinctions as “esthetic” and “utilitarian.” However practical, the projects do disrupt the normal run of things. The elevator car is designed to be a room, a gallery even, so that ideas of stability are a bit upset. This is also the case with the ramp: its mad spiral seems to defy any order. Oppositions like inside and outside, surface and structure, are disconnected, as the thing weaves up and down and in and out of itself, like a structure that does not obey structural laws. It is difficult to see it as one thing in space or to read it as one line in time. Though manifestly of a piece, it does not signify as such: it comes whole only as a memory-trace.

The two other works in the show are more in keeping with prior work by Oppenheim. One “occurs” in a narrow room set on the floor is a half-sphere of translucent plastic with two concentric surfaces that spiral to a circular aperture at the top; within it is a speaker that leads to a tape-recorder by the far wall. The whole looks like a beehive, and in fact the taped sound is the buzz of bees near and on a microphone. However, it is not defined as “beehive and buzz,” or, rather, it does not hold as such, for the hive and the buzz are signifiers without a signified (no bees of course). To what or to whom to refer the thing? Substitutes like “tape-recorder” or even “artist” are no good. So detached, the sound and the structure come to refer to each other: the spiral of the hive “resembles” the rise and fall of the buzz and vice versa. This is not to say that the work is any more “self-referential” than “representational”; another term is necessary. As the hive and the buzz become alike, it is hard to keep them apart: ideas of space and time get mixed up. One would think that, at the very least, the work is defined inasmuch as it is inside the room and outside the viewer, but even this is unsure ground. Though right there, it is not specific. The buzz is diffuse; the spiral extrapolates itself. Moreover, against all resistance, one internalizes the thing. The experience is, finally, not unlike madness: nothing seems discrete, or ordered, or intended.

The last work is an object made of blocks of green-tint glass, bonded in the form of a model house; the piece (250 pounds or so) is suspended from the ceiling by a cable. Like the beehive, the glass de-defines itself: nearly each Property, even nuance, of glass as a material is resisted. Not fragile, nearly opaque, heavy, glass here is not an immaterial substance, no membrane that opposes an interior and an exterior. That it is solid, without much access even for light, is odder still since its form is that of a house, the institution of interiors of all sorts. Even the interior of the glass, its structure, is projected on the wall as an exterior image. In effect, the piece reverses the value of “interior space” (the metaphor of consciousness, soul, truth, etc.) over “exterior thing” (the literalism of the body, etc.).

In the end, the works seem so given as forms (an elevator, a ramp, a beehive, a house) and so bizarre as installations that it is hard to conceive of an artist who invents, or intends it just so. That is, the show does not seem the (exterior) form of an (interior) consciousness that one can identify with the artist. This is intentional, I think, for it allows the work, in the words of Oppenheim, “to bypass its sender and truly expand.”

Hal Foster