All in his head
Snorting bulls. Bread-slicing horses. Sleeping hot dogs. When Dennis Oppenheim says he doesn’t know what his art is all about, is he being coy or guarding the joke?
Dennis Oppenheim appears protected by a force field of contradictions when he enters the room. He’s of average size, but the reaction of the group of volunteers is that he’s much larger. He’s 65 years old but exudes a kind of youthful energy. He’s got large, builder-type hands, but they’re soft. He’s somber but friendly. Thoughtful but extemporaneous. Much of his work seems zany—colorful and silly—but two levels below visual, it’s deadly serious and based on dark ideas.
He’s a conceptual artist who’s articulate but sometimes can’t remember the precise idea that launched a work. Conceptual art is art in which the idea behind a particular work and the means of producing it is more important than the finished work.
Oppenheim is the subject of the Nevada Museum of Art’s new exhibit, Dennis Oppenheim: Galloping Through the West. The exhibit features about two dozen pieces, ranging from his early “land art” works to “body art” to large, installation pieces to sculptures that could be considered orthodox and even to his newest “period,” public art. Chronologically, the exhibit represents work done from 1967 through the present.
“I’m thrilled to have him here,” says Steven High, executive director of the museum. “He’s an artist I’ve personally followed for my whole career. He’s always been a contemporary artist who’s been right on the edge of what was going on in the contemporary art world with his land art work in the ‘60s, body work in the ‘70s. He was involved with doing these machines in the ‘80s, when that became kind of an edge of contemporary artmaking. Most recently he’s moved into being one of the most effective public artists out there.”
“Our piece, ‘Engagement,’ is a good example. At a very straight reading of it, it’s two rings with jewels on top. But then these jewels become houses, and they’re separate houses. Is he doing an homage to marriage, or is it the exact opposite to that? He works in these different levels and that makes him very interesting. He’s not going to sit there and tell you what it means, though.”
Oppenheim’s here, at the NMA on the Thursday before the show’s opening, to instruct the museum’s docents on the mysteries of his artwork.One of the first stops in this tour is “Blue Tattoo,” an installation that features a bull whose foreleg paws the floor. An installation is usually a large, sprawling work of art that requires arrangement on floors, ceilings or walls. The bull’s leg is powered by steam that’s generated by teapots, and the beast snorts steam. A small projector shines a blue tattoo of a heart onto the bull’s shoulder; a video camera records the light and feeds it into a larger projector, which casts the heart upon a large gardening glove with variations of the words “mother” and “sister” printed upon it. This work requires explanation, as it’s a little difficult to understand on its surface. Oppenheim seems to want an explanation, too.
“These are pieces that I certainly did, and I’m responsible for,” he says, with a gesture that encompasses the entire exhibit but specifically includes “Blue Tattoo.” “I may have had a clear idea in my head, but it’s certainly faded.”
He performs a retroactive analysis.
“The steaming kettles could be intricately plumbed, so that steam could come out its nostrils, which could certainly be equated with anger,” he says, hugging his black-sweatered body and looking intently with moist blue eyes over an outthrust lower lip. “The leather glove and the hide of the animal are probably ….”
He trails off. A docent shyly points out the glove is made of fabric.
“Here lies the mystique,” replies the artist wryly. “If people were to ask me what this is, I’d probably say, ‘It’s a good example of an installation.’ “
Oppenheim was born on Sept. 6, 1938, in Electric City, Wash. He earned his bachelor’s of fine arts in 1965 from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He received his master’s from Stanford in 1966 shortly before moving to New York City. According to his résumé, he had his first one-person exhibition in 1968 in New York City. Since then, he’s had individual shows everywhere from San Francisco to Tel Aviv to Paris to Munich to Vienna and has been part of some of the most prestigious group exhibitions in the world. His public art, which could be considered his most recent “period,” is exhibited in cities from Buenaventura, Calif., to Seoul, South Korea, to Viliniaus, Lithuania.
As the NMA tour continues, the artist expounds on his philosophies, drives and histories. It’s pretty easy to assume the sculptures, some of which seem quite lighthearted, will be the exhibits that draw people to the museum. People without artistic training can visually relate to miniature horses with knives for hooves running through, slicing through, a large loaf of bread before disappearing into the wall.
Another favorite will be “Sleeping Dogs,” a large representation of eight 6-foot-long hot dogs gathered head to toe around a campfire, wrapped in sleeping bags. It’s colorful—with reds, blues and greens—and amusing, with one version of irony resting easily on the surface. But the real joke, to read the mind of an artist who is more inscrutable than many, is the irony that rests in the provenance of hot dogs and why they are usually brought to campfires.
Oppenheim seems dismissive of some of the pieces; the untitled piece with seven green horses jumping through each other and the “Half Ass Tree,” which is made of brightly painted mannequin parts, he calls “more conventional sculptures” and doesn’t discuss further.
The group pauses at “Forming Sounds,” a documentation of a 1971 body-art piece, but Oppenheim begins to discuss some of his earliest professional work, the land art. Land art, or Earth art, is—at least in Oppenheim’s version of it—large-scale art done directly on the landscape, for lack of a better popular image, sort of like the mysterious crop circles that have “cropped” up in Great Britain and elsewhere.
An example of this is “Annual Rings,” a 1968 work that portrayed large tree rings on the snow crossing the U.S.-Canada border. It seems intended to show that political boundaries don’t divide real things. The land art was a radical departure from the style of the day, when art was done mostly in studios. Land art existed in the moment, was immovable, and today lives only in the photographic record Oppenheim kept. It was art, but the photographs of it are not.
“This work wanted to be outside convention,” he says, brushing a lock of his wild gray hair out of his eye. “This kind of art wanted to be real.”
Likewise, Oppenheim’s body art broke with the conventional by being uncollectible art. One example of this is the 1970 piece “Parallel Stress,” another photographic documentation that shows the much-younger artist suspended by his hands and feet, back bent into almost a ‘V’ by its own weight. The posture is replicated in another photograph, with Oppenheim bent between two piles of what appears to be gravel. Again, Oppenheim’s in the swell of change, infusing the art with action and physical danger. He’s contemporary with Chris Burden, the performance artist who had a friend shoot him in the shoulder. With a bullet.
In another 1970 piece (not shown in this exhibit), “Reading Position for the Second Degree Burn,” Oppenheim lay in the sun for five hours with an open book resting upon the bare skin of his torso. His skin was sunburned.
“Body art is radical in that the artist is the object and the subject,” Oppenheim says.
He pauses at the “Wolf Trucks,” a maquette he made for a large show in Germany. A maquette is a small-scale model of what an artist intends to create.
Essentially, the “Wolf Trucks” were tractor-trailers with wolf masks covering the tractor. Red lasers were supposed to fire out the back and front while the trucks randomly drove around Germany at all hours of the night.
“Sometimes, what you do in the art world is you make proposals,” he says. “It was just a proposal. This is what we do, we pitch theses things. [I had this idea] of these trucks driving around, spewing demonic red lights. The people driving the trucks were not … intended to be the best citizens in the world.”
Oppenheim says it takes a lot of energy when an artist competes to be in a show or to be paid to create public art.
“A very large percentage is losing. [The ideas] all fail, except one, and often it’s not the best one.”
Near the “Wolf Trucks” and next to two fiberglass sculptures of supine men (modeled on a wedding cake groom) who appear to have lighting bolts blasting either into or out of their chests ("Lightning Bolt Man,” 2001) is the largest installation in the exhibition. It’s called “Silver Bullets.” When describing this work, Oppenheim gives the docents a little peek into his artistic life.
He says he must have an idea in his head for at least six months before he will create the work. This one seemed to be an idea that needed a proposal.
The piece is made up of four heads, all four or five feet tall. Each of the heads has a hand pointing a gun toward it. The heads are all apparently Caucasian, although that view may rest entirely in the fiberglass’ hue.
“They all start with motivation. I proposed this for the lobby of the New York City Criminal Court building. I’m a little bit kidding about that. I built it because I wanted to build it.”
Each of the hands and guns is a different color: red, yellow, cream and beige. Oppenheim suggested the images were suicidal, but the different-colored hands seem to make a racial statement.
He said he didn’t personally construct the piece but had helpers, a common practice among artists. “After a while, you lose all your skills. Artists have been subcontracting work out for a long time. … Crafts are nothing I feel vacuous about not having.”
A docent raised a question about interpreting art.
“A lot of artists—and good ones, too—don’t really know what the strengths are in their work.”
Oppenheim continues, talking about how he doesn’t like much comfort in his art. He says that while the art world may prefer signature artists, he doesn’t see art that way. He wants to move on. He likes to get proficient at something—land art, body art, sculpture—and then move on. These days, he’s creating public art, like the huge wedding ring/homes on display outside the museum.
“Some artists only get one great idea,” he says.
Dennis Oppenheim plainly is not one of them.