Roma Gallery presents 11 large-scale wall-mounted artworks by the great American artist Dennis Oppenheim, from 5 May to 4 June 2022, in an exhibition curated by Dimitris Trikas. A towering figure in American conceptual art and beyond, Oppenheim takes innocent signifiers of everyday life and twists them into meanings of death, sickness, horror – or simply agonising doubt. The dialectic relationship between form and content triggers a new conversation, charges with new meaning the signifier-signified relationship. In the unsettling Virus (1989), for instance, small cast plaster figures of Mickey Mouse mounted on aluminium rods, suggest – rather than alluding to the popular amusement park or evoking a happy tune from The Sound of Music – the structural model of the molecules of a threatening virus. How prophetic, indeed! In Thought… he evokes a landscape of danger (war?) by constructing a cluster of bones (Ezekiel’s “dry bones”?) that end in double-edged blades, resembling “fingers of fear” that threaten thought, therefore life itself. Study for Second Generation features the ghost of a car lunging from the striped belly of a zebra. The terms “second generation” and “third generation” relate to the reading of objects and animals as beings transmitted from elsewhere, a suggestion of unreality reinforced by an Alice-in-Wonderland scale that makes household items exaggeratedly too big and larger objects too small. Scale is reversed even as meaning is reversed. The world turns unfamiliar, upended; instead of pleasure, playing produces discomfort, a sense of threat. The forms themselves are readily identifiable, but their abstracted surfaces render them generic and somewhat totemic.
Dennis Oppenheim was born in 1938 in Electric City, Washington. From 1966 until his death in 2011, he lived and worked in New York. During these four decades, Dennis Oppenheim’s art enlisted all available techniques and existing art forms – from writing, performance, video and photography to drawing, sculpture and installation. Oppenheim’s fascinating journey began with body art and land art in the epic mid-Sixties, arriving at a sarcastic and subversive commentary on contemporary life in the Eighties and Nineties, using toys – symbols of childhood innocence – and utilitarian objects that take on a new meaning in his hands. They build a soaring palace of subtle – and therefore all the more frightening – menace, which effectively undermines the joints and core of a prevalent, systemic consumerist complacency and a narcissistic individualism that sells illusions of security, prosperity and gratuitous pleasure. William Burroughs once said, with his unmistakable sarcasm: ‘No one owns life, but anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death.’ Oppenheim takes innocent signifiers of everyday life and twists them into meanings of death, sickness, horror – or simply agonising doubt. The dialectic relationship between form and content triggers a new conversation, charges with new meaning the signifier-signified relationship.