BUDDING ARSONISTS ASIDE, MANY OF US CAN STILL RELATE TO the cathartic emotion contained in the title “Inside us all there is a part that would like to burn down our own house”—an urge to wipe the slate clean, to destroy the imperfection of one’s reality and begin anew. In a diverse exhibit which includes conceptual sculptures, digital prints and a brief but impressive video, Geof Oppenheimer approaches the violence implicit in society, and how social systems and political dogma intersect with the terrain of art and culture.
Collaborating with an unnamed pyrotechnic expert who once worked for Disney, Oppenheimer created explosions within ballistic-grade Plexiglas cubes, their residue coating the interior surfaces with bright splashes of pigment. Visually stunning, each of the three cubes, collectively titledModern Ensembles (2010-2011), has a unique palette, one coated in warm, earthy tones of ocher and orange, another raspberry-alizarin with faint touches of yellow-beige and sky blue and the last army gray-green, shot through with electric yellow and darker tones of brown. While the sculptures attest to dramatic events involving gunpowder and pigment, they convey more an aura of science lab than battlefield, undermining somewhat their intended function as signifiers for the violence undergirding our culture.
Oppenheimer’s video Anthems (2011) evoked a generalized sense of dismay and unease with the social constructs that a military marching band might suggest. The four unspecified national anthems, simultaneously played by groups of the drum and marching corps of Rickover Naval Academy in Chicago, were blended and overlaid, essentially mangled beyond any recognition. Reflections and combinations of sound and image created an unsettling effect, while the military precision—the neatly pressed uniforms and shining horns—suggested the regimentation of life in the service of one’s country, and a kind of surrender of self to the greater whole, of following orders. As these lines of marching bands paraded in absurd, tight circles, periodically the cacophony of sound faded to silence, and the images of the marchers shifted to a vacant space bearing rough plywood constructions: a pair of steps. Eventually, the two risers fit together like a puzzle, one inverted resting atop the other—perhaps a metaphor for the enforced unity of political camaraderie.
The final component, Social Failure and Black Signs (2010), was comprised of acerbic wall-hung, text-based pieces. Against a light gray background a slender arm enters bearing a message lettered in plain white text on a black card—”TOLERATED AS UNFORTUNATE EXCESSES,” “AND DESPAIR, DECADENCE, AND MORALS” among them. These terse, dogmatic excerpts have been taken from interviews with notable politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Fidel Castro. A statement about the ultimate futility of political ideology, these images offer us a brittle aesthetic experience, and present a kind of intellectual conundrum as well: strings of words decontextualized to convey no coherent meaning, rather an ambiguous —yet autocratic—sound bite.
Oppenheimer’s work is engaging enough to draw and keep our interest, yet simultaneously hermetic and dispassionate enough to put us on edge.
- Barbara Morris