Sarah Oppenheimer

Rice Gallery, Houston

Through December 5, 2010
by Rachel Hooper

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      Sarah Oppenheimer
      D-17
      2010
      Commission, Rice University Art Gallery, Houston, Texas
      Photograph by Nash Baker © nashbaker.com

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      Photographs cannot convey the effect of walking around Sarah Oppenheimer’s architectural interventions. The first time I encountered her work, my senses were heightened dramatically as I looked down through a hole in the gallery floor at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh to glimpse the backyard of a neighboring house four stories below (610-3356, 2008). The intense awareness of my place in space was unforgettable, so I eagerly awaited the opening of Oppenheimer’s installation at Rice Gallery, expecting a similarly mind-blowing alteration of the gallery space. However, upon walking through the front door, I was surprised to find myself sheltered under a matte white aluminum structure that gently sloped from the window above me down through the facing glass wall into the main gallery space. As I circumnavigated the construction, however, there were two spots where its forms coalesced to frame specific scenes. From inside the gallery, at the point at the base of the slope, you can see sunlight, sky, and treetops through an asymmetric polygon cut in the window above the front door. And in the lobby to the left of the entrance, you can look through the sculpture into the glass wall separating the reception area from the gallery and see treetops and sky reflected back to you as if in a mirror. With such peaceful views and subtle optic manipulations, the artwork is a more mature statement from an artist known for more startling works.

      D-17 is unique among installations I’ve seen at Rice in that it utilizes the full length of the museum from the front door to the back of the gallery. Previous installations, such as those by El Anatsui, Wayne White or Michael Salter, have only occupied the main gallery space behind the glass. It is the first time Oppenheimer was asked to work with an extant glass wall, and according to her artist talk, she came to realize that the glass is more translucent than transparent; consequently, glazes on the windows and interior glass wall filter the light coming into the gallery. The “hole” she built is not a puncture in the exterior wall as much as it is an alteration to the gradation of light that comes from the natural light (or darkness) outside the museum through the transition of the lobby to the incandescent light in the gallery. The matte coating on the aluminum catches the changing light throughout the day, while the channel through the middle of the construction pulls natural light into the main gallery space where it would otherwise be filtered by two glass walls.

      Oppenheimer’s installation at Rice is less shocking and more ambitious than previous works in her series of holes. Visitors must rely on their careful perception to notice the muted colors and shadows cast by lighting that we would normally take for granted. Only then can one understand how the artist has inverted the normal viewing situation by bringing outside light in. The cut in the window also departs from the voyeuristic appeal of some of her previous works. Here, it frames a peaceful, natural scene instead of the legs of people walking above you as in VP-41 at Art Basel in 2009. D-17 is the kind of art that asks you to spend time with it. It provides a space for quiet contemplation distinct from the information overload that is all too common in museum exhibitions and installation art in general. Like James Turrell’s Skyspace (2001), which is newly reopened in the Heights, or Robert Irwin’s scrims, Oppenheimer has opened up a direct interaction between viewers and light, and D-17 is left as merely a trace of her intervention and an introduction to the conversation.

      Rachel Hooper is the associate curator and Cynthia Woods Mitchell fellow at Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston.

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