Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010 | midnight
Artist Dennis Oppenheim has given the world wickedly funny, seriously dark, whimsical and often controversial works that teeter amusingly on the absurd.
Since the '60s, his earth- and body artworks, performance pieces, machine installations, and public sculptures have gained international praise and been exhibited in New York's Museum of Modern Art and London's Tate Gallery, among other institutions.
So imagine our surprise when we learned in 2007 that Oppenheim would create a sculpture for the gateway to the Arts District, and that it would consist of ... two paintbrushes, more than 45 feet high, emitting rainbow lights into the sky?
It was, at once, a high and a low, a bittersweet controversy that would resonate for weeks in a chorus of complaints from area residents and artists: Paintbrushes? Really? That's all he could come up with for Las Vegas? What about our history, our environment, politics and unconventional industry?
Considering Oppenheim's other work, the paintbrushes seem a bit mundane.
The Netherlands got Oppenheim's "Station for Detaining and Blinding Radio-Active Horses," a large industrial unit with moving parts. Canada has the very controversial "Device to Root out Evil," an upside-down church, and Denmark got "Rabbit Factory," an architectural structure that seems to be producing rabbits. Each is structurally and theoretically complex.
So how did Las Vegas end up with paintbrushes?
Oppenheim's proposal (one of two he made) for the $700,000 project beat out three other proposals, including one by local artists. But it wasn't a runaway winner. In a Saturday morning arts district gateway subcommission meeting in October 2007 at City Hall, the deciders — gallery owners, Downtown players, museum executives, collectors and professionals — initially believed that all of the proposals fell short for reasons of security, logistics or aesthetics.
After much debate, the committee voted 6-4 for an Oppenheim piece — but not the paintbrushes. This one involved paint buckets pouring neon, accented with flamingos. Later, that proposal came in at $3 million, so the city had to fly the artist back to hear an amended proposal (the paintbrushes) and the words, "bait and switch" rumbled through the Arts District.
Also, Oppenheim's original paintbrush proposal included four brushes — two at each gateway. That, too, exceeded the budget. Now there are only two brushes proposed.
But Oppenheim makes no apologies for the work. He says it's the proposal he spent most of his time on, and explains that with public art, the site and behavior of the work is often dictated to the artist.
Dennis Oppenheim's studio works
- When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday (Jan. 8 through April 3)
- Where: Reed Whipple Cultural Center, 821 Las Vegas Boulevard North, Las Vegas
- For more information: 229-6211
"These competitions are strange for those of us who have found ourselves awkwardly perched in the domain of public art," he says. "It coexists with galleries and museums, but it's really quite separate. I remember my studio as a laboratory when you could go in and make anything you want—pure science, pure discovery. To reach that level of pure discovery in the public sector is not impossible, but it's not easy."
Creating fine art for a biennale is much different than a city or county commission using public funds, he says.
And with Oppenheim, who some believe was selected because of his experience and reputation, there is no telling what you'll get. He is all over the map, figuratively and literally, experimenting with approaches, methods, styles and ideas like a mad scientist in a lab. His newer works are much more stylistic, geometric and architectural than what he was doing 20 years ago.
The paintbrushes are more in line with the bombastic but friendly "Bus Home," a 2002 bus shelter in Buenaventura California, which spirals from a bus into a house, than with something like "Device to Root Out Evil," an inverted country church with its steeple entrenched in the earth. "Bus Home" has been liked and disliked, but "Device" has been loved, hated and protested in Vancouver (where it found a home following its rejection by Stanford University).
Sadly, the proposed paintbrushes give little insight into the Kafka-like brilliance Oppenheim is capable of. It's no "Village Around Piss Lake" (1993), a gritty sculpture of houses with long-tongued faces that encircle an unsavory water hole, or "Attempt to Raise Hell" (1974), a mechanical piece that has a seated figure repeatedly banging his head into a cast-iron bell.
On the other hand, it's not a direct insult to our city, which was the reaction Milwaukee residents had to his proposal for the Milwaukee International Airport: a translucent two- or three-story blue shirt. The community believed that it poked fun at its blue-collar history.
For Las Vegas, Oppenheim said to the city's Arts Commission subcommittee that he wanted to create something accessible that would play off of the history of the area and its neon. His first idea was to corral and resurrect signs from the Neon Boneyard, which turned out to be complicated and costly, so he presented other proposals.
The paintbrushes (one at Charleston and Las Vegas boulevards, the other at Main Street and Charleston Boulevard) won out. The decision to stick with Oppenheim went forward partly because of concerns that the project would be jeopardized by a delay, because $360,000 of the funds were coming from the Nevada Department of Transportation, and fabrication needed to begin by June 2008 or the funding would expire.
Installation of the works is set to begin this spring, and the Oppenheim debate likely will renew because art in public spaces often turns people batty. To highlight the artist, the city of Las Vegas has organized a quickly assembled exhibit of Oppenheim's studio works at the Reed Whipple Cultural Center. It won't complete the story, but it will fill in a few blank spaces.
The exhibit opens January 8, and, because of limited space, the city currently is unsure which pieces will be included. On the roster of potential pieces is "Tunnel of Love," a three-dimensional sculpture of the word love that has holes in its top that are illuminated by lights; "Electric Kiss," which resembles the Hershey's chocolate candy; and "Metamorphosis," a delicate spiral sculpture in which images of various objects morph into their opposites.
Jeanne Voltura, gallery coordinator with the city, co-curated the exhibit and says it's supposed to coincide with the dedication of the brushes, which has yet to be planned. The exhibit runs through April 3.