Sarah Oppenheimer

Rice Gallery, Houston

Melissa Ragain

Sarah Oppenheimer, D-17, 2010; commission, Rice University Art Gallery, Houston; photo by Nash Baker © nashbaker.com

Sarah Oppenheimer, D-17, 2010; commission, Rice University Art Gallery, Houston; photo by Nash Baker © nashbaker.com

For someone deeply invested in the study of perception and its role in the history of art, Sarah Oppenheimer’s installations of periscopic portals at the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh (2008) and Art Basel, Switzerland (2009) seem like visual demonstrations of Edmund Husserl’s understanding of how time unfolds within consciousness. This observation is closely tied to Husserl’s concepts of “retention” and “protention,” interpreted by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception in 1945:

With the arrival of every moment, its predecessor undergoes a change….from being a retention it becomes the retention of a retention, and the layer of time between it and me thickens.

Oppenheimer’s sanded wood portals physically cut into existing architecture, creating new cinematic vistas that are normally obscured by the walls, floors and corners of architectural interiors. Each portal plays on both the retention of the previous moment of architectural experience and the protention of what experience will follow. Creating disjuncture between these processes, Oppenheimer’s cutaway portals are new avenues of perception that literally slice through the arc of intervening experience. The result is a reframing of that experience as a flattened image, a thinning rather than thickening of time and space. There are probably other ways to talk about these works—as variations on the camera obscura, for example, or as punctures in the gallery system à la Michael Asher—but what makes them uniquely effective is their ability to combine such historical references and critical strategies with the spatial collapse of James Turrell’s “skyspaces.”

Oppenheimer’s current installation at Rice University (the future home of a Turrell skyspace), however, presents the artist’s wobbly first attempt at a new way of working. Rice Gallery’s straightforward architecture of three white walls fronted by a fourth wall/entryway of glass challenges Oppenheimer’s modus operandi by already allowing unimpeded views into (and out of) the exhibition space. Hence why much of the work presented there takes the form of a psychedelic diorama, where one can peer into a decadent alternate universe. While this kind of space tests the limits of Oppenheimer's own practice, it also affords the opportunity for her practice to test the limits and normal uses of the space. Her installation, DC-17, consists of a single white form resembling a slightly crumpled paper airplane—elsewhere described as a “needle” or “wing”—fitted uncomfortably into the gallery. So cramped is the shape that it must protrude through the gallery’s glass wall and then twist through the semicircular window above the entrance to the university building that houses the gallery.

Sarah Oppenheimer, D-17, 2010; commission, Rice University Art Gallery, Houston, Texas; photo by Nash Baker © nashbaker.com

The form is subsequently divided into three distinct and descending phases from the building entrance to the rear of the gallery space. Along this trajectory the work transforms from what appears to be a mysterious and inviting shelter borne aloft into a banal, over-lit metal knoll. Viewed from this interior endpoint, the form’s continuity and discontinuity are both evident as one can observe in a single view each moment that DC-17 reaches through a thin layer of glazing. Oppenheimer’s form itself is composed of a slightly awkward assemblage of aluminum pieces over a wooden spine, and it does not merge seamlessly at the curtain walls, spoiling the illusionism that made her previous work so effective.

The work reverses the process of spatial collapse for which Oppenheimer is known, and instead charts movement through space while also attempting to intervene in the unhindered flow of light into the gallery. In this sense Oppenheimer solves the dilemma posed to her practice by Rice Gallery’s architecture: she treats light as an architectural given to be carved and punctured. This solution, however, leaves the nature of Oppenheimer’s intervention unclear: Is it antagonistic? A mere alteration? A perceptual challenge? Such questions may indicate a crossroads in Oppenheimer's developing attitude toward cognitive mapping and the subtle dictates of public architecture.

Melissa Ragain is a Critical Fellow in the Core Program at the Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and a PhD Candidate at the University of Virginia.

This exhibition is on view until December 5, 2010.

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