New York

Dennis Oppenheim

John Gibson Gallery; Willoughby Sharp Gallery

Dennis Oppenheim’s work of the last 20 years has been played out through the nexus of Conceptualism, Earthworks, and Body art, as if willfully evading any demarcation of territory. His career since the late ’60s has been a series of about-faces, disavowals, repetitions, and abrupt forays into unknown regions. As Stuart Morgan observed almost a decade ago, “His art does not exhaust themes, explore materials or engage in formal experimentation for its own sake . . . there is change in his career, but no `development’; at any moment he may double back to something he abandoned ten years before.” So it seems in these two shows, as Oppenheim forsakes the fantastical “desiring machines” of the early ’80s and returns, albeit obliquely, to the fascination with natural processes and forces that characterizes his earliest works.

The crowded, cacophonous installation at John Gibson Gallery must be experienced as an ensemble, in that each piece modifies our apprehension of the others. Oppenheim freely mixes silent works with distressingly noisy ones, self-contained objects with others that spew flames and steam. Chattering false teeth, ominously sounding drums, and model train evoke an atmosphere somewhere between a toy shop and a stagey haunted house. Although this installation lacks the sense of visceral threat that animated much of Oppenheim’s work from the early ’70s—work in which he subjected either himself or his marionette surrogates to bizarre rituals of punishment and mutilation—they still engender an aura of subdued menace and stifled connections. In Badly Tuned Cow, 1989, the artist confines a fiberglass-and-wax model of a cow within a pen of musical notations illuminated by black light, invoking an unheard music. Bad Cells Are Comin’, 1989, enacts a similar play of sound and silence, expectation and denial: that the cymbals (painted red and blue) never make a sound as the rotating butane torch heats the attached beakers of ink only renders the work more disquieting. At Willoughby Sharp Gallery, Oppenheim showed Crystal Tumor, 1989, which consisted of a mannequin’s fiberglass torso covered in layers of putrescent blue, purple, and black wax, a crystalline tumor projecting from its heart. A devouring negativity pervades this image of life arrested, rotten, and frozen. Here, disease itself is allied to the silent and unseen, as the invisible bacterial or viral invaders wreak havoc on the regular operations of the visible body.

In the context of Oppenheim’s latest production, it’s worth recalling a shocking installation he did at the Clocktower in 1974. The artist laid a dead German shepherd over the keys of an electric organ; the musical tones that were elicited formed a record of the body’s dissolution, while suggesting the spirit’s departure from the body. This double-edged articulation of the differences between living and dead, sound and silence, corporeality and evanescence consistently informs Oppenheim’s work. Rather than adhere to conventional dialectical structures such as body/spirit, he skews the polarities, allowing some seepage. It is a cliché, and perhaps even inaccurate to describe Oppenheim as a shaman or magus in the manner of Beuys. He strives to capture the moment of real rather than magical transformation, as in the uncharted passage from life to death, from the rigorously ordered body to the entropic sedimentation of decay.