JUST TRYING TO FIT IN
by William Corwin
DENNIS OPPENHEIM Terrestrial Studio
STORM KING ART CENTER | MAY 14 – NOVEMBER 13, 2016
Just about everything you need to know about Dennis Oppenheim and his work is expressed in the touching video piece Star Exchange (1970) on view in the indoor gallery at Storm King—part of the expansive indoor and outdoor exhibition of the artist’s work, Terrestrial Studio. For twenty-five minutes, Oppenheim and his son Erik take turns lying on the forest ground in Aspen, Colorado, and draw stars in white lime dust, each circumscribing the other. They then switch stars and nine-year-old Erik expands to fit his father’s, while Dennis contracts and squeezes to fit Erik’s. It is a tender statement on the condition of kinship and fatherhood, as well as a startling assertion on the awkwardness of being a conscious, thinking entity within the State of Nature and not quite fitting in. For the next forty years, Oppenheim massaged and finessed both his humanness and his personality into the landscape, and conversely pulled what was human and familiar from the artificial—drawing stark contrasts between what is made and what is natural, what is viewed and what is seen.
Unlike many of the land artists with whom he began his career, such as Heizer, Smithson, and De Maria—artists who chose to manipulate earth and natural objects or integrate abstract forms into the landscape—Oppenheim was not afraid to implement familiar, recognizable forms into the landscape. He introduced words, stars and later in his career, vernacular objects and materials so jarring as to immediately cause an intense disjunction with their surroundings: blue-collared shirts, Hershey’s kisses, PVC and Plexiglas trees, and cacti.
Wishing the Mountains Madness, a seminal work from 1977, falls upon the sprawling Storm King property and is playfully inconvenient, again underlining Oppenheim’s desire to integrate abstract human thinking into the environment. Of the dozens of plywood stars methodically placed across the South Fields, only a handful are ever visible to the viewer at any given time, with no privileged promontory from which to view the full installation. While many of Oppenheim’s works moved into the realm of immediate legibility, Wishing the Mountains Madness (fully represented by an aerial photograph of the original installation) and other early ephemeral works, emphasized the requirement for documentation through artificial means.
While Wishing the Mountains Madness rejects the traditional idea of the vista or panorama in favor of concept, Dead Furrow (1967/2016), a first-time fabrication of a concept the artist himself had only experimented with in smaller and more intimate forms, is an elaborate postmodern “viewing station” to behold one’s surroundings. Yet, while viewing nature and the landscape are the raison d’être of the installation, it is the singular human desire to look that is emphasized most by the structure’s very alien aesthetic. Recalling one of David Hockney’s set designs for The Magic Flute, the clean lines of Oppenheim’s gray, trapezoidal platform are reinforced by the thick robin’s egg blue PVC pipes which frame its base at ground level. Clearly foretelling Oppenheim’s later works, Dead Furrow distills the artist’s evolving grapple with the contradictions inherent in creating outdoor sculpture that “fits” into the landscape, assessing the a priori fact that any sculpture introduced into the environment is not a natural manifestation but a forced intervention.
Making no effort to integrate with its surrounding palette or geometries, Entrance to a Garden (2004), is a monument to the idea of work and making. It is a two-story blue work shirt—a solid gateway of metal screens with a small meditative garden behind. Similarly confectious is Electric Kiss (2008), an onion dome shaped structure—or chocolate kiss—composed of colored, transparent Plexiglas rods. Though the forms of the shirt and kiss are so recognizably human-made, Oppenheim seems to be offering them up as naturally occurring forms, worthy of the same consideration of a tree or a mountain. An earlier installation Beehive Volcano (1979) applies the opposite approach to achieve the same goal: the appropriated form of a beehive is presented as a thoroughly artificial object within an interior context.
The dedication to artificiality climaxes in his late works Alternative Landscape Components (2006) and Architectural Cactus Grove (2008). In a conversation with Willoughby Sharp, published in the beautiful exhibition catalogue accompanying the show, Oppenheim talks about his later objects and their need for legitimization via comparison to their natural-world doppelgangers: “They all do insist upon a relationship as a counterpart to a real tree, a real bush, a real hedge. They want that so desperately so they can justify the fact that they’re there.”
Alternative Landscape Components provides a collection of basic landscape elements—trees, hedges, rocks—all fabricated from PVC pipe, Plexiglas, and black enameled metal structural pieces, evoking an Oz-like or Candyland aesthetic. Cactus Grove plays with materiality, reflection, texture and form, caricaturing an already odd-looking variety of plant and providing portals and mirrors with which the viewer can spy themselves or on someone else “looking” at nature. In both cases we are confronted with a version of the natural world incorporating a portrait or clear presentation of ourselves; gaudy, overblown and ill fitted into our surroundings.
From the earliest works in which Oppenheim adapted a very human construct—the symbol of the star into the soft ground of the forest, and the outline of a gallery space onto a lawn—the remaking of rocks and trees into human approximations is conceptually not such a far stray. What we see, rather, in Terrestrial Studio is the stark transformation of his methodology, from the intimate connections formed through his own investigations and creation of Land and Body Art to a polemical breed of hybrid interactive/public sculpture that mirrors the progress of our culture and our impact on the environment.