Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Currents 102: Sarah Oppenheimer

by Sun Smith-Fôret

Currents 102: Sarah Oppenheimer
Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO
April 11-July 6, 2008

It is an old trick to include a piece of visual communication like a penny, a peach, a person, a plane, to establish scale and to locate the viewer in a space with some logic and the possibility of comprehension on the part of the viewer. Similarly, visual tricks can be used to distort space and or context.

In Sarah Oppenheimer’s site-specific “Currents 102” installation at the Saint Louis Art Museum, “Horizontal Roll,” the artist inverts the principle of familiarity, in this case appropriating specific works of art from the Museum's collection by constructing a room-sized, three- sided, multi-apertured box camera in the center of Gallery 337 into which viewers are invited to walk, look, and experience familiar works in contemplative, often shared, fresh acts of seeing.

If you take the elevator to the third floor galleries you disembark and see a Gee's Bend pine cone pattern quilt on the wall directly across from the doors. The pattern reads as a repetition of apertures, lens like circles that have the capability of opening and closing to reveal or hide, a clever if unintended visual reference, a jump cut into the Oppenheimer's filmic enterprise.

Then make a sharp right-hand turn through the Modernist gallery and go straight ahead through the Gallery 336, “Post War-Post Wall: German Expressionism 1960-1990.” This huge gallery, the largest in the Modern and Contemporary domain of the Museum boasts familiar mainstays of the collection. Straight ahead and through the doorway to Gallery 336 stands a new barrier wall, the installation wall, with it's relatively small opening, a polished plywood sheathed hole, engineered to frame and isolate from the rest of the image the nose and mouth of Chuck Close's “Keith” (1970). We know that we "know" this image, but questions are raised.


Sarah Oppenheimer, American (b. 1972).
Horizontal Roll
(framed views of Chuck Close's Keith), 2008.
Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery. Photo by David Ulmer.


In an interview by Robin Clark included in the exhibition broadside, Sarah Oppenheimer comments that the piece "Horizontal Roll” “is less a response to the Museum's collection than a response to the Museum's encoded space. Any work placed within the Museum's boundaries is framed by it's institutional purview, it's array of spaces and arrangement of objects. This project addresses the act of moving/viewing inside the Museum space. The components of “Horizontal Roll” are placed strategically in relation to works in the collection in order to set up zones of pictorial reflection and repetition."


Sarah Oppenheimer, American (b. 1972).
Horizontal Roll
(framed views of Chuck Close's Keith), 2008.
Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery. Photo by David Ulmer.

We walk into and around the piece for a full 360-degree amble. One go-round hardly suffices as she has punctuated the walls of her installation on three sides with apertures that allow shifting views of all or portions of 12 artworks in the surrounding galleries, some of which reflect each other or in the case of Gerhard Richter's “Gray Mirror” (1991), reflect artworks and observers outside of our direct line of sight. If we participate in her piece by allowing ourselves to accept suggestions, by adjusting our focus, we can be engaged in an entirely new kinesthetic connection with other viewers and with objects from the collection chosen by Oppenheimer for their references to how and what we see.

The investigations of others are highlighted in her generous modern and minimalist references. She includes “Mary Magdalene,” Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1519), depicting a Renaissance woman involved in a private act of gazing into a reflective if distorting surface. My friend and colleague Elisabeth Kirsch who writes for the Arts Page of the Kansas City Star suggested that Oppenheimer's work could function as a post modern, non-cynical critique of Duchamp' s erotically charged critique of "looking" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Étant donnés: 1. la chute d'eau 2. le gaz d’eclairage (GIVEN: The Waterfall 2. The Illuminating Gas)”, mixed media assemblage (1946-1966).


Sarah Oppenheimer, American (b. 1972).
Horizontal Roll
(framed views of Roy Lichtenstein's Curtains), 2008.
Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery. Photo by David Ulmer.

With its spare footprint, Oppenheimer's built environment is room as camera, room with literal “holes” in the walls, room within room, room offering multiple viewpoints. The piece plays with the notions of interiority and vista. Meanings subjective, layered, and occur as we move through the spaces encountering other viewers or not. The design and engineering of “Horzizontal Roll” is meticulous.

At the opening for the exhibition, Oppenheimer commented to my friend St. Louis artist Dawn Ottensmeier, that she used computer technology in the design phase and only had 1/16th inch leeway for the placement of the wall and apertures on the Mondrian/Kelly view. Using the confines of discrete and fixed gallery spaces she allows one the opportunity to feel, on a physical level, one's self-as-camera. Our eyes are the film, our bodies the steady cam moving and stopping to frame connections for ourselves through Oppenheimer's elegantly engineered and constructed punctures. We have new relationships with the objects and with other viewers and participants. The work engenders conversation. I talked with J.D., a thoughtful Museum Guard who helped me locate the identity of the unmarked and ubiquitous Artschwagers. I talked with two Museum Art Handlers, both artists, about differences and similarities between 2D and 3D works and about the technical demands of their craft in containing and shipping and unpacking art works. A fellow visitor and I roamed from mirror to mirror and together mirrored our shared surprise at all the connections. These kinds of random engagements are of course the essence of Postmodernism.

What Postmodernism addresses is the inseparability of context from what we "know". Postmodernism, instead of asking for the facts, asks how we construct our knowledge. As in Contemporary Art, the tenants of Postmodernism inform the practice and work of psychotherapy and how we form relationships from the cradle, or the womb if you will, forward in time and space. As a practicing psychotherapist and a working artist I felt an enormous surge of conceptual compatibility with “Horizontal Roll.” Putting myself simultaneously into the roles cinematographer and director I followed my new eye toward "After the War and After the Wall-German Painting 1960-1990” exhibition in Gallery 336. In concert with the pathos and power of the paintings I re-imagined the poignancy of Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck's 2007 Oscar winning film “The Lives of Others,” Ger. (2007). On this my second visit, something different took over my usual museum context viewing, allowing me to appreciate at a deeper level that period of history and the people who experienced it first hand. I was guided along an alternative line of sight created by another, the artist. The links were suggested, available, never forced. This mindful arrival at insight and discovery is of course the stuff of psychotherapy. It is rewarding to have a young and highly accomplished artist as both model and fellow explorer.
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Saint Louis Art Museum is located at One Fine Arts Drive in Forest Park, St. Louis, MO. 314/721-0072. Free & open to the public Tuesday-Sunday.
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Sun Smith-Fôret is a practicing psychotherapist in St. Louis and a regional artist. Her mixed media textiles, drawings and paintings focus on the subject of movies over time and have been exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including the recent two-artist exhibit, "Interior States " at Regional Arts Commission, St. Louis, MO (November 2007-January 2008). Her works will be shown in a solo exhibit, "Movie Quilts by Sun Smith-Fôret," at the Belger Arts Center, Kansas City, MO (July 4, 2008-October 3, 2008) and in a 3-artist exhibit, "Charms and Talismans" with Marjorie Hoeltzel and Dawn Ottensmeier at Chesterfield Arts , Chesterfield, MO (October 24, 2008-January 3, 2009). In addition to her art making, Sun serves on the Art Saint Louis Board of Directors.

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