Harvey Opgenorth

Bodybuilder & Sportsman

HARVEY OPGENORTH KNOWS that one way to consider the many legacies of modern painting is to step into its shoes. Opgenorth begins the works in his ongoing “Museum Camouflage” series, 1998–, with a visit to a major American art museum, where he selects a well-known painting—an Ellsworth Kelly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a Matisse at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; a Frankenthaler at the Milwaukee Art Museum in Opgenorth's hometown; and, this summer, a Rothko at the Art Institute of Chicago (where he was prevented from completing his performance). In each case, Opgenorth studies the work closely, then combs thrift stores to find clothes that match the precise chromas of a section of the chosen canvas. He meticulously fashions a complete outfit that will allow his body to blend seamlessly into the painting when he stands in front of it. Then Opgenorth returns to the museum and, in a kind of guerrilla theater performance, without requesting permission or authorization, stands silently with his back to the painting for one hour.

This is gentle subversion, a witty unmasking of the authority of the museum, its hallowed hierarchy now stuffed and ready for embalming. Opgenorth's performance—and his tales of being hassled by museum staff, challenged by museumgoers, tugged at by children, etc.—has a deadpan innocence about it. He becomes lost in the painting, his steady forward gaze a Magritte-like gesture toward eroded personhood in the midst of the near disappearance and sublimation of the rest of his body. And yet there's a sense of homage to art and its canon here too, an aura appropriation that reifies the swatches of color in the painting behind Opgenorth, making them suddenly germane. This seems modest raillery, a way of taking possession that is also a surrender, a relatively benign insertion. Opgenorth is as interested in the objecthood of the painting as he is in its pictorial surface; his multicolored mufti even echoes the shadows cast by the paintings as they hang on their institutional walls.

Recently, in his Chicago debut, Opgenorth showed photographs documenting his museum performances as well as the outfits he made for them. He also exhibited a few visual experiments, variations on the blue-collar conceptualism of the “Museum Camouflage” series. In Push and View, 2000, the visitor presses a button on a modified overhead projector and gets flashed with a faceful of overwhelmingly bright light. Somewhat blinded and disoriented, the viewer is then to turn and look at the gessoed white canvas that Opgenorth has placed perpendicular to the floodlight, in order to see the results of visual discombobulation temporarily but intensely etched upon the retina. The brief disruption and redirection of the mechanics of sight and the diverse shifting shapes and colors that appear in the blinded eye are images generated by and in the viewer, while the artist serves simply as the generous facilitator of the visual stimulation and provider of the canvas. The viewer becomes a performer again in Opgenorth's experiment with anamorphism, visual matter presented such that it can only be “correctly” discerned when seen from an extremely oblique angle. Screaming Monkey Head, 2000, a drawing that sprawls out over two walls and a door, initially looks like abstract blotches of black latex paint. Only when the viewer places his or her head against the wall and closes one eye do the blotches come into focus as a monkey's head. These complex visual exercises are central to Opgenorth's roundabout modification of what and how we see, making the supposedly stable and neutral act of observing a performance more tenuous, open, insecure, and complicit.

James Yood