Lisa Oppenheim

Galerie Juliètte Jongma

In Lisa Oppenheim’s show “Parallax View” there was a constant tension between easily readable images and those that are utterly indecipherable and entropic. The gallery’s back room contained photographs from the series “Upside-Down Portraits” (all works 2005), consisting of images printed directly from daguerreotypes in the US Library of Congress. The enlarged black-and-white prints of these oxidized, scratched, and generally degraded daguerreotypes are informe surfaces that can no longer be related to titles such as Unidentified Elderly Woman with Cap—all the more so since they are upside down. There is a similar but more complex and subtle shift from figuration to abstraction in the two works from the “Autochromes” series, which consists of large reproductions of early color photographs that have become almost undifferentiated monochrome surfaces. However, the motifs still show through ever so slightly—in one case a painting of Jesus, in the other a still life.

The gallery’s front room contained Story Study Print, which consists of two 16-mm film projections. On backgrounds of various colors, the projection on the left shows lines from two radical alphabet posters from the ’70s, “The Black ABC’s” and “The Alternative Alphabet for Big and Little People.” Thus we read, for example, that “A is for Afro,” “B is for Beauty,” “F is for Freedom,” “V is for Vote,” “X is for extra-special,” and “Y is for Yoga.” The projection on the right only repeats the letter in question, both in capitals and lowercase, while “illustrating” the concept in question with film footage. For instance, a range of beauty products accompanies the letter B. Because the projections are out of sync, linguistic and visual representation rarely coincide; thus, while the letter B is explained on the left, the right projection could be showing the letter O and film footage of a dinosaur sculpture. (O is for old, in case you were wondering.)

As this example shows, Oppenheim’s selection of images is often whimsical; in combination with the lack of synchronicity of the two projections, which forces one to try and recollect what word a given letter stood for, the choice of imagery undercuts the didacticism of the original posters. Sometimes she goes for slightly predictable jokes: A fridge is made to represent “C is for Cool.” But there are also more intriguing montages of concept and image (a medieval castle accompanies “D is for Dream,” while a public housing project with satellite dishes accompanies “H is for Home”) that were probably not exactly what the creators of the poster had in mind, and in a subtle shift between 1970 and the present, “K is for Kids” is visualized by ultracontemporary, hyperactive kids lip-synching to music in a park.

Oppenheim’s work could be seen as critical dialogue with various attempts to make art legible by subjecting it to a linguistic model—from Panofskyan iconology to the Conceptual art of the era from which the alphabet posters stem. Sometimes, especially in the “Upside-Down Portraits,” Oppenheim’s own attempts to sabotage the reduction of visibility to readability is itself all too instantly decodable. However, the transformations inflicted on learning materials in Story Study Print show that Oppenheim is aware of—and distrustful of—the didactic element in her own practice.

—Sven Lütticken