ART REVIEWS : Oppenheim's Big-Deal Production

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sometimes, gigantic art is prodigious, monumental and awesome. Sometimes, it is overblown, bombastic and arrogant. And sometimes, gigantic art is just gigantic.

In his work of the late 1960s and early '70s, Dennis Oppenheim--like fellow Earth artists Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer--worked on a mammoth scale, taking art out of its rarefied milieu and into the landscape so as to wrench apart the longstanding opposition between nature and culture, art and life.

In 1969, Oppenheim redrew the boundary lines of Cornell University's art gallery in the snowy field of a nearby bird sanctuary. Repeatedly reconfigured by the flocks of pigeons alighting at random, the "gallery transplant" challenged a stunning array of modernist myths--the stability of cartographic systems, the sacrosanct nature of gallery space, the autonomy and eternity of the work of art.

Later, Oppenheim abandoned the macrocosmic scale of Earth art for the microcosmic scale of Body art--lodging a torn-off fingernail between gallery floorboards while embedding a splinter from them under his skin; tracing a geometric configuration onto his son's back while his son transferred the drawing as tactilely understood onto the wall. In shifting from the colossal to the intimate, however, the work sacrificed neither scope nor power, continuing to circle around questions of authenticity and to expose the vulnerability of cognitive systems and processes.

Oppenheim's long career has been marked by a series of such fluctuations in scale. In his current work, on view at Ace Contemporary Exhibitions, the pendulum has swung back to gigantism; but this time, the results are profoundly disturbing. If Earth art disallowed the fetishization of the art object, the object is herewith reclaimed. If Earth art was marked by a certain megalomania, that tendency translates here into a childish self-indulgence: I'll make the biggest objects imaginable--Gargantuan bird cages, tureens, teapots and wine glasses--simply because I can.

Oppenheim seems to have soaked up the slick consumerism of the '80s, hauling his work back into the gallery and smoothing out the rough edges in order to present us with commodity-based installations. His aren't just any commodities, however; they are hyper-commodities--too large to be easily bought and sold, but symbolic of buying and selling, nonetheless.

What is most alarming is that the work evinces little concern over its compromised position. Indeed, one of the installations features an enormous pair of revolving bottle racks, an obvious nod to Duchamp, whose designation of the "ready-made" and embrace of a non-retinal art were crucial for those artists--including Oppenheim--who came of age in the '60s. Yet by over-inflating Duchamp's "found" object and festooning it with countless pairs of red plastic lips, Oppenheim seems less interested in writing a love song than in giving "Dad" the kiss-off.

Perhaps if this work were by someone other than Oppenheim one could learn to love its fun-house antics; from certain angles it even begins to resemble the ciracus-like art of Jonathan Borofsky. Yet as this work was indeed produced by Oppenheim (and produced is the operative word for this highly theatrical exhibition), it ultimately fails to register as anything other than a major disappointment.

* Ace Contemporary Exhibitions, 5514 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 935-4411, through May 10. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Out of This World: People who are entranced by UFOs--like those who go in for conspiracy theories, ESP and the like--want desperately to believe that there is something out there beyond the random chaos: some other plan, order or reality that is only temporarily obscured by positivism's overarching blinders.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still," a group show curated by Irit Krygier and Cirrus Gallery director Jean Milant, asks the question: "Is there life in outer space?"--not ingenuously, but with a healthy dose of Postmodern irony. Nineteen artists are showcased, some well-known (Barbara Bloom, John McCracken, Ed Ruscha), others less so (Ros Johanna, Brian Tucker, Ed Newell), their work ranging from photography to painting, sculpture to color Xerox, drawing to installation.

Photography, however, is clearly the privileged medium. No surprise since photography, of all media, tangles most intimately with the question of authenticity, calling for the suspension of skepticism and insisting that the eyewitness account is tantamount to the real. Raul Guerrero's "U.F.O.L.A."--an image of a mysterious oval circling over the freeways and skyscrapers of L.A.--is, then, the show's definitive image, revealing how the "truth" of a U.F.O. sighting can be fabricated via the photograph's habitual fictions.

The most compelling work, however, belongs to Victor Raphael: Polaroid snapshots taken from NASA programs on T.V.--shooting stars, comets, novas and eclipses, rendered in the extravagant colors of high-tech imaging systems--embellished with drips, spots and scratches of metal leaf. The images are exquisite, the wispy metal sometimes hovering over the photograph's high-gloss surface, sometimes embedding itself into its spectral third dimension. Raphael's extraordinary work may not answer the question of whether or not there is life in outer space. But it does demonstrate that there is indeed life here, in the rather more constricted inner sanctums of the art world.

* Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alameda, (213) 680-3473, through May 16. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Moving Still Lifes: Still lifes are fraught with difficulty. The subject matter--so simple, so direct--never seems to be quite enough. And so the artist offers up surreal-style metamorphoses--Edward Weston's anthropomorphic peppers, for example. Or the critic reads elaborate psychodramas--tales of resistance and submission, diffidence and exclusion--into heretofore innocent arrangements of fruits and flowers.

The wonder of the still-life photographs and drawings made by Martha Alf is that they evade metaphor's ever-beckoning clutches. Alf has been drawing pears for more than 13 years; what sustains her is not the hidden narrative, but the materiality of both her subject and her technique.

Concatenations of purple, red, orange, yellow and pink lines rake across pieces of paper at 45-degree angles, coalescing into forms that seem at once inevitable and strangely contingent. The pears are still, yet they pulse; they are solid, yet evanescent. Alf's command over her medium is remarkable, but this never devolves into virtuoso work. For the artist doesn't look upon her motif as incidental--the drawings' sensitivity to minute variations in form (bruises, irregular contours, etc.) makes this quite clear.

The exhibition also includes a suite of paintings. Some resemble small-scale Rothkos: wide bands of color hazily bordering narrow ones. Others, though tonally and texturally variegated, are monochromatic: hot reds, deep oranges, glowing yellows. Metaphor feels quite appropriate here--and what these abstract images most readily conjure is the preternatural shimmer of flesh, the lambent surface of warm skin. Like the rest of the pieces in this show, Alf's paintings--her first in more than 15 years--are radiant works of art.

* Newspace, 5241 Melrose Ave., (213) 469-9353, through May 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Historical Violence: Great themes of traditional history painting are transformed into contemporary narratives of the crack-strewn street in Sandow Birk's quite extraordinary history paintings.

The drug deal gone sour, the gang war gone ballistic, the casual drive-by shooting and the sadistic police interrogation: These are the syncopated rhythms of the city under siege. Played out by a cast of African-American and Latino youths, these bloody dramas are nowhere near as frenetic as the spray-painted backdrops (done by graffiti artists Wil Lanni and Devin Flynn) against which they are set. For Birk has adopted and recast the static compositions of familiar 17th- and 18th-Century history paintings so that David's "Death of Marat" becomes "Death of Manuel," shot in his red Impala; and Caravaggio's "Martyrdom of St. Matthew" becomes a violent, multiracial love triangle.

Classical history paintings were explicitly didactic, enjoining the viewer to strive toward ever-greater moral heights by offering up exemplars of nobility, patriotism and/or self-sacrifice. Birk's history paintings are didactic as well, insisting that there is nothing moral, noble, patriotic or self-sacrificing about dying over a crack deal or worse, a color worn in the wrong place at the wrong time.

* Bess Cutler Gallery, 903 Colorado Ave., (310) 394-6673, through April 22. Closed Mondays.

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