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Public art, said Dennis Oppenheim in the late 1990s, “may be a domain that looks good simply because everything else looks so bad. Public art has certainly been a receptacle for some of the worst sculpture ever made, but somehow it seems to have an opening that doesn’t exist within the clutches of the art world circuit of museums and galleries.” Since making that statement, Oppenheim has offered a corrective, devoting his recent practice almost exclusively to municipal commissions and open competitions. He has created work that defies expectations for public art while maintaining a critical if somewhat eccentric distance from the genre.
For Alternative Landscape Components: A New Land Art, his latest project in New York, he explores landscaping—a strange but fitting direction for this pioneer of earthworks. Organized by Clare Weiss, curator for the City of New York’s Parks and Recreation Department, this temporary exhibition spreads across three locations: sculpture installed at Thomas Paine Park in Lower Manhattan’s Foley Square and on the grounds of the Arsenal Building in Central Park, and works on paper at the Arsenal Gallery.
Alternative Landscape Components continues Oppenheim’s interest since the late 1980s in quirky yet disturbing Pop and Surrealist imagery combined with Postminimalist forms and blown up to architectural scale. For the two outdoor locations, the artist fabricated several dozen works resembling trees, shrubbery, hedges, rocks, groundcover, and flowerbeds. Rather than mimicking nature directly, he created objects from decidedly unnatural materials. Huge steel-trunk trees sprout laundry hampers, storage bins, lawn chairs, trashcans, and clusters of PVC tubing instead of leaves. Flowerbeds and groundcover are colorful steel cylinders, cubes, and wedges stuck on thin lattices. The hedges, bushes, and rocks consist of perforated acrylic and steel panels on metal frames. At the Arsenal Gallery, working drawings of built and unbuilt projects, as well as photomontages of proposed sculptural interventions, into other natural settings, demonstrates Oppenheim’s variety of forms.
The sculptures are decorative and delirious, but it’s hard to pinpoint the artist’s conceptual position. Through the patent artificiality of its lurid colors and readymade, industrially fabricated materials, the work implicitly draws attention to the meticulous, though thoroughly disguised, planning and design that transformed Central Park into an urban oasis. While the sculptures unmask the subterfuge between the natural and manmade, they blur distinctions between public and private space and, with tongue in cheek, gardening and land art (a practice Oppenheim felt he had exhausted by the 1970s). Further, the work questions notions of site-specificity: while these sculptures are appropriate to their display sites, they would look equally at home in any other park, or, for that matter, a gallery or museum. (Perhaps these temporary works belong indoors: either vandals or the elements damaged several works in the downtown installation.)
This unresolved tension underlying the playful surface and jarring juxtapositions both invites and confounds the viewer, making an encounter with Alternative Landscape Components an intriguing but not entirely satisfying experience.