Every 100 seconds, the tiny, legless puppet lurches forward convulsive ly, clanging its head with demonic force
against a silver bell. The effect is eerie; violence by proxy at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Charlie McCarthy has been up dated as a sado-masochistic stand-in by New York artist Dennis Oppenheim in a piece called An Attempt to Raise Hell. "I wanted to engage in an act that would have killed me," explains Oppen heim, "so I reduced myself to a surro gate, a voodoo symbol. An Attempt to Raise Hell was a summing-up: it deals with vision and revision. In `74 I was desperate, almost shell-shocked, after the combustion of the `60s."
Considered a prophet by some, Op penheim is undeniably an international star in the elite and hermetic world of avant-garde art known severally as con ceptual, process, earth and performance
artnon-art to the non-believers. He comes with impeccable credentials -some 200 exhibitions (the Venice Bien nale among others) and inclusion in the great contemporary museum collec tions of the world-but surprisingly, the 10-year retrospective recently or ganized by Montreal's Musée d'Art Con temporain was his first in North Amer ica. In Toronto until mid-November, the exhibition of sculptures, drawings, pho tographs, films and video works con tinues on to the Winnipeg Art Gallery
next year and possibly to the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
At home, in his elegant loft near SoHo(the New York artists’ enclave), surrounded by zebra skins, Persian rugs, African masks and a pricey collection of Lalique vases, Oppenheim chain-smokes, props his feet up on a round oak table and snaps open the first Budweiser of a threebeer supper. The modern mystic as urban cowboy. With an uncompromising vision softened by wit and whimsy, he can ad-lib for hours about life, love and his latest ideas for sculpture: a chocolate room, a hot-coal walk, a death hole for the Kingdom of Iran, tree houses which poison the very trees they’re in, and a deadly acid test in a vat which, if it’s ever built, may be the ultimate experience for some unwary viewer who falls into it. His art, like his environment, is hardly the work of an ascetic, although his oversized refrigerator encourages fasting, containing little more than frozen crab legs, a jar of chili sauce and a plate with week-old cake crumbs.
With his blue jeans, blue eyes and fallen-angel face, this raunchy, paunchy, radically brilliant 40-year-old looks like the Marlboro Man gone slightly to seed. But Oppenheim is selling concepts, not objects (his works do not sell like hotcakes). For Dennis Oppenheim and many artists of the last two decades, it’s the thought that counts. Since the ’20s, when Marcel Duchamp’s irreverent “ready-mades” jettisoned old attitudes and definitions, artists have taken to proclaiming that anything (including daily life) is art, if the artist says it is.
After moving east in the mid ’60s, Oppenheim switched from West Coast “funk” to minimalistic land-art: first, merely claiming certain sites as works of art, then redefining the geography itself, mapping and marking with gigantic furrows, signs, snow tracks, hay mazes, geometric wheat-field harvests, a smoke sculpture in the sky, and Identity Stretch (1970), which translated his and his son Erik’s thumb prints into 1,000-foot swirls of tar in New York’s grassy Artpark. His art became ephemeral (the simple process, for example, of digging trenches for his 1969 work Branded Mountain), and he began to “patent” his ideas with film, video and photography. “The earth projects were important: sculpture as place,” Oppenheim now claims, “but they relied on so many external systems that they began to alienate my sense of intuition and control.”
So he turned inward, using his own
body as medium and message. Art became autobiographical; angst and action became ingredients, and the artist emerged in the age-old and romantic role of shaman, dealing in catharsis and mystique. “The late ’60s were extreme,” he reminisces. “Your hands no longer held crude tools—they were appendages, directing energy back into yourself through simple, isolated acts. Everything started to heat up. You’d wake up in the morning and weren’t sure if you’d survive the day. Art was incredibly rich, full of vast emotions and mysteries in real time. There was no illusion. I did a piece about fear, for example, and had my wife throw these huge bricks at me while a video camera was trained on my face.” In another piece, making formal connections between skin and soil, he “engraved” his arm the same way he’d “engraved” the land; in another, using his skin as a canvas, Oppenheim broiled himself in the sun to produce a pattern of seconddegree burns; and in one film, he cannibalized a series of gingerbread men, displaying the resultant feces as the residue, the final work of art. (Mercifully, the vomit, meant to reconstitute the cookies, never materialized).
In the last five years, the arena of art has changed and he with it. The atmosphere is less charged now, more traditional, and Oppenheim—agile, inventive, contradictory—has added theatrical installations to his other work, creating complex metaphors for the environment, using puppets and puns as vehicles for performance. Avoid the Issues (1974), he ironically spelled out in lights across the landscape at East River, N.Y., then went on to erect stage sets in pieces such as Ghost Town (1978), Wishing Well (1973) and Ultimate Outfield Hit (1978), which explore the layers between illusion and reality. But there’s an edge, a moral. “Everyone was so ego-driven there, all that jogging and granola and useless self-improvement. I wanted to announce the Harlems, the severe problems in our world.” His images are filled with fear, fragmentation and frustration, the paranoid obsessions sometimes obvious, sometimes veiled with fantasy and irony. “This art is about freedom and risk,” says Oppenheim, “it’s voracious.”
If artists claim a special status in society as chosen beings, it’s also true that even within their sacred circles, some are more equal than others by virtue of the power of their concepts. One of his alter-ego puppets j iggles and j i ves to an endless refrain from his theme song: “It ain’t what you make, it’s what makes you do it.” Dennis Oppenheim is better “art” than others— not that he makes it easy.
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