“Geof Oppenheimer: Big Boss and the Ecstasy of Pressures,” the Chicago sculptor’s first solo museum exhibition, presented two works commissioned by the Block Museum. The video installation DRAMA (2014-15) uncannily merged the space on-screen with that of the gallery. Five monitors presented the Spartan interiors of a high-rise Chicago office, the palette of which was echoed by the gallery’s slate-colored carpet, gray walls and pallid fluorescent lights. Attached by spindly piers to rolling bases, the screens quietly crowded spectators, harking back to anthropomorphic readymades in Oppenheimer’s earlier work. The setting of the office demonstrates how familiarity does not always engender intimacy; it is a prosaic environment where it is nonetheless impossible to be comfortable.
The protagonists of Oppenheimer’s video are two quasi-cyborgs who conform stiffly to the hard geometry of the office furniture and pull their faces into rictuses under a sickly salmon light that lends their skin the bloodless appearance of latex. The blandly handsome men face off across a conference table, trading shiny black orbs that evoke the symbolically dense but materially void mechanisms of credit on one hand and the baubles of high modernist design on the other.
“Context drives value,” proclaims an office sign in DRAMA, a platitude that passes with disturbing ease as both corporate banality and contemporary aesthetic theory. Upstairs, Oppenheimer’s sculptural installation Civil/Evil (2015) offered a meditation on the old Foucauldian chestnut that power operates best beyond the reaches of vision. Four brutalist cinderblock walls segmented the space with an off-kilter “X” that inflexibly determined spectators’ possible points of view. In an interview, the artist demystified the work’s more reticent elements. A print on one wall showed spatterings that represent the most distant phenomena observed by the Hubble space telescope. The blind, brown eyes of the celestial bodies echo the carnage represented on the gallery wall behind the cinderblock barrier, in a digital photo of a man swaddled in bandages to cover an eye blinded in a skirmish with police. Vision hits a wall in both images; in one, we encounter the heavenly apogee of surveillance, and in the other a citizen unable to look back.
In the crux of two of the other cinderblock walls was a seemingly figural lead sculpture that blithely profaned both the formal and material purities of Minimalism. An elongated cube was angled atop a useless, clapperless bell, producing the flared hip of contrapposto. A brazenly decorative skein of gold garlanded the steel armature, where both manufacturer’s codes and handwritten notes for assembling the work itself still marked the surface. Whereas Minimalist works are coldly coy in their relationship to the body, Oppenheimer’s sculpture is ostentatious. In retaining the traces of industrial fabrication, it obnoxiously draws attention to the contextual transubstantiation central to contemporary art. The walls behind the figure failed to join, producing a peekaboo window through the dystopian structure to the blank gallery wall beyond. If the appropriated imagery in Civil/Evil grimly suggested limits to our ability to see forces of power, the opposite side of the installation mischievously provided a means of seeing through them.