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Dennis Oppenheim
at Haines Gallery, San Francisco, California
Review by DeWitt Cheng

A selection of works documenting Dennis Oppenheim’s Sixties-era land art projects demonstrate how he helped expand the field of artistic possibility.



Continuing through July 14, 2012


Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass,” a 340-ton, 456-foot-long granite boulder, has been installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to great acclaim, a rather odd development given the adversarial role that Land Art assumed in the late 1960s against, in Dennis Oppenheim’s words, “the gallery syndrome of the art world.” Never bet against the art world. Oppenheim’s works from that tumultuous, rebellious year “1968: Earthworks and Ground Systems”  is less dramatic than Heizer’s piece (which may cause unintended flashbacks to Abbie Hoffman’s 1967 effort to levitate the Pentagon). But this selection of Oppenheim’s documentary maps, photos, construction drawings and film, unemotional in tone in the Sixties mode, demonstrate how lasting has been Land Art’s effect on what one critic termed, with intentional ambiguity, the “expanded field” of the cultural landscape. 


On display are five multipanel pieces made by Oppenheim, documenting his interventions and operations in the landscape. All are composed of enlarged color photos, decidedly unpicturesque, unseductive and mostly monochromatic. They suggest data or information rather than subjective interpretation: collaged maps with captions that describe briefly the artist’s actions. Photographic “windows” containing virtual space alternate with flat maps, text or aerial photos must be apprehended and comprehended differently. The result is not unease, but a synoptic, multi-perspective view of what happened in “the main work” at the site, as represented by the documents we encounter in the gallery. 


In “Time Line,“ two photos of a shallow three-mile trench backhoed along the US/Canada border are separated by a photo of a metal plaque at the International Boundary Line. In “Landslide” two blowup photos of the embankment beneath exit 52 of the Long Island Expressway, studded with boards inserted in dotted-line patterns along a thousand-foot expanse, are separated by an aerial map of the cloverleaf area made from USGS square-mile photos mounted in a grid. In “One Hour Run” photos of snow-covered hillsides, incised by a snowmobile for sixty minutes at six miles per hour, are butted against a panel of text and a collage of topographic maps. “Annual Rings” and "Indentation-Removal" stack the panels vertically. In the former, a photo depicts circular tracks in snow representing annual tree rings (or annula), bisected by the stream demarcating the US/Canada border. The latter composes photos viewed from eye level of rubble-strewn dirt in Jersey City, New Jersey before and after the removal of a steel ring. The images are separated by a band of explanatory text.


Accompanying these large mixed-media polyptychs are some less familiar works. A short 16mmm film, now transferred to DVD, entitled “Back-Track,” shows the young artist in shorts and T-shirt, on his stomach at Jones Beach, New York. He scrapes sand with a two-foot length of 2 x 4 lumber, a parodic version of Pollock-style action painting executed with deadpan gravity, even as the waves wash over the results of his labor. A series of ten sepia prints mounted on masonite entitled “Structures for Viewing” reproduces pages from Oppenheim’s limited-edition book of engineering drawings on the fabrication of various projects in metal and steel. The series was reproduced by his French publisher in unexpectedly buoyant sheets of blue, green, pink and sepia — perhaps to match the specified hedges and ground covers.


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