New York

Dennis Oppenheim

Blue Helman

“A toy is a child’s first initiation to art,” Charles Baudelaire once claimed; conversely, art could be the adult’s swan song to toys. There’s an area where the tendrils of the ludic wrap around the roots of the esthetic, and that’s precisely where Dennis Oppenheim works. Ranging from the little art experiments he did with his kids in the ’70s to the sculptures in his latest exhibition, Oppenheim has created a body of works that comprise his own little Land of the Misfit Toys. For instance, Think Tank, 1993, is half Cat in the Hat, half a passionately staged Gomez Addams toy-train wreck: two choo-choos circumnavigate the brims of giant (nearly six-foot-tall), bright-orange top hats that rest on the floor at slight angles so that the trains chug away on the inclines but plummet perilously on the slopes. As a resounding clackety-clack-clack fills the air and cheap metaphors for celebration flash through your mind, you can’t help but find yourself hoping for the little trains to jump their tracks and smack into one another.

Playthings, of course, are supposed to be utterly safe, straight, and happy, whereas Oppenheim is sort of like the character in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers who makes gynecological instruments too insane to be properly functional: he starts out with a playful idea, but pushes it to such an extreme that it comes off as dangerous, twisted, or creepy. In Galloping Through the Wheat, 1992, wild horses with long, sharp blades for hooves trample a big loaf of what looks like foam Wonderbread, ruthlessly shredding it (and, by implication, white-bread America) into ever smaller chunks. In Untitled, 1993, three huge plaster busts huddle together in a corner around a pile of brown ears, blue eyes, and black noses that have presumably fallen off their faces. No matter how you read this work (Communication breakdown? A critique of alienation? An allegory of the senses? A loss of sense?), in the end you’re still left with the impression that these busts could just be spooky Mr. Potato Heads that someone got tired of playing with and/or didn’t care to put back together.

Oppenheim’s works rarely allow for neat and tidy interpretations. The installation Blue Tattoo, 1992–93, presents a baffling chain of physical links: tea pots shoot steam into the nostrils of a small mechanized bull as it paws the ground with its leg; its shoulder is engraved with a heart to which is affixed a blue light and a camera that sends an image of the heart to a projector; the projector beams it to a large glove suspended from the ceiling, covered with the words “mother” and “sister.” Roland Barthes once wrote that toys mirror the objects of the adult world and thus prepare kids to assume social roles unquestioningly. Oppenheim’s works function in exactly the opposite way: in both their semantic play and their formal mischievousness, they mirror the spirit of toys that aren’t mass-produced, but cobbled together out of old cardboard boxes and castaway clothes.

Keith Seward