Dennis Oppenheim (Electric City, Washington, 1938 – New York, 2011) traversed the second half of the Twentieth century with the vigilant and attentive attitude of a tireless investigator of languages, helping to substantiate and define the scope of some of the most significant artistic experiences of the second half of the last century. The conceptual dimension of his research, based on the idea of a constant metamorphosis into an unstable universe, is the ideal tension with which over the years the artist constructed a fluid and constantly changing language, seemingly eccentric and emotionally destabilizing.
After a pictorial debut in 1967 Oppenheim made his first hole in the ground, which was opposed to the reality of the object and its permanence, instead relating the exhibition venue with the action of the artist in that place. Since his intervention Oakland Wedge, dug in the garden of his home, the artist has directed his research towards “scenting the atmosphere of the soil to realize where all that theoretical material was going to finish up” consisting his reflections.
This transition to nature, and therefore to Land Art (art in and on the landscape), with the consequent partial dematerialization of the object, was accompanied by a different way of conceiving photography, used as an instrument of information and documentation of these interventions in the territory.
The works produced in 1968 also assumed a political acceptation, with reference to the legitimacy of the occupation of space by the various nation states. In this way works such as Annual Rings were created, provocative signs drawn on the border between Canada and the United States.
Oppenheim interpreted the land, and subsequently the human body, as the surface of a painting, a place available for the artist’s intervention. Experimentation, in the wake of Body Art (art with and on the body), therefore became a pretext for attaining a different dimension of concentration, maintaining an ideal bond with traditional painting: cutting, scratching and exploring the skin were carried out as “pictorial” interventions, as operations performed on the canvas.
Among the most famous axamples is Reading Position for Second Degree Burn, in which the sign of burns on the artist’s body, surrounded by the outline of the book laid on his chest, is both a citation and a superseding of paintings as such.
The transition to performance and video was almost immediate and in 1974 the artist, working together with his son, created works that reflect on the conceptions of time, longevity and genetics. In the same years animals began to appear in Oppenheim’s works and, at the end of the decade, he also conducted his first experiments with light and sounds. The mechanical element bacame predominant in the production of this period: in contrast with the previous decade, in which he used a more radical conceptual language, in the late 70s Oppenheim developed a more “architectural” dimension, with dynamic sculptures directed to the search for elements of instability and regeneration (carts, springs, wheels and complex devices composed these works as evocations of the process of thought).
This attitude would flow into all his following production: from that in the 80s, where he worked on change and the transformation of everyday objects (Wake Collision, 1989), the works of the 90s, dominated by randomness (Figure Skating, 1990), even when inspired by Pop and Disneyan iconography, to the monumental works in public spaces produced from 1995 on. The sculptures in those years appeared as structures challenging the boundaries of physics and at the same time imposed a new perception of environmental space (Device to Root Out Evil, 1997; Swarm, 2001).
Oppenheim exhibited at Nicola Incisetto’s Framart Studio in Naples for the first time in 1976 and subsequently on numerous occasions in the 90s.
Identity Stretch (1976), the work in the Madre Collection, is part of a late cycle of Earthworks, on which Oppenheim started work in 1970, with a matrix dating back to his engagement with Land Art and then Body Art. Using his own fingerprint, and often also his son Eric’s, he enlarged and superimposed them on a landscape photograph, made through photographic images as well as a map and a plan in relief. In this way the natural landscape was tampered with so as to give rise to the new form and new outlines imposed on the landscape by the artist himself, who established a new relation with it.
The photographic sequence, the enlarged fingerprint and the accompanying text make up the six elements of a poetic mode that is intended to give the artist the privileged role of “artifex”, the artificer who leaves a mark, an imprint, on the territory, who models nature in accordance with an ideal striving that entrust art with the task of affecting reality, reinterpreting and modifying it.