JTF (just the facts): A total of 18 photographic works, variously framed/unframed, and hung against white walls in the main gallery downstairs and the smaller gallery and project room upstairs. 8 of the works are c-prints (6 single images, 1 diptych, and 1 triptych), made in 2017. Individual sizes/panels range from roughly 31×24 to 66×43 inches (or reverse), and all of these works are available in editions of 1+AP. 4 of the works are dye sublimation prints on aluminum (each in two pieces), made in 2016. Aggregate physical sizes range from roughly 50×34 to 39×56 inches (or reverse), and all of these works are unique. And 6 of the works are jaquard woven cotton, mohair, and linen textiles (5 single images and 1 diptych), made in 2017. Physical sizes range from roughly 23×19 to 67×35 inches (or reverse), and all of these works are available in editions of 1+AP. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Lisa Oppenheim’s confident new gallery show feels like the natural confluence of a number of ideas that she has been exploring separately over the past decade. It brings together her continued investigations into the history of photography and the reuse of archival imagery, an update on the thinking that generated the iterative close-up lace images in her 2012 Leisure Work series, and a further extension and refinement of her 2015 experiments in translating imagery into the mechanical instructions that run a textile loom. In three new bodies of work, she has given these originally discrete ideas a much clearer unifying structure, adding a sense of resonance that connects the three into a larger and more sophisticated aesthetic commentary on “women’s work”.
The conceptual starting point of the show (although the works are shown up on the second floor of the gallery) is a series of divided black and white diptychs appropriated from Lewis Hine. The images document the plight of young female textile workers from early 1900s Boston, each seen from behind and inexplicably stripped of her top while working at a table. Oppenheim has placed the vertical split of each diptych right along the spine of one of the women, the strict verticality of the separating line set in opposition to the curvature found in her back. The enlarged images are an exercise in unsettling contrast – on one hand, the pictures are oddly sensual, the forms of the backs seemingly burnished with light, and yet on the other, they show us undeniable proof of the hardships these women had to endure as workers, the deformities and scoliosis providing the evidence of their long term struggles.
Oppenheim then builds on this theme, making images of textile fragments sourced from roughly the same time and place as the Hine photographs. Like her earlier lace studies, these images get right up close to the weave, enlarging the scraps to the point that each and every thread and knot is visible. But instead of using the photogram process she employed before, she’s made exposures in reversed color, the negatives of plaids, polka dots, and plain denim or linen made eerie by the dark/light inversion. The extreme attention (and massive scale) applied to the cloth remnants exposes all of their imperfections and misalignments, the solid color swatches turning into busy fields of all-over intricacy like static and the patterned flowers and squiggly lines edging closer toward the break down of abstraction. The intimate tactile details are altogether engrossing, but the larger context of the Hine photographs gives the pictures an ominous undercurrent of exploitation.
Oppenheim then takes the iteration one step further, by bringing in the jacquard loom process (and its associations to the women who primarily operated these machines). Starting with the extra-large images of the fabric scraps, she inverts the colors back to positive and feeds the associated digital instructions into the loom. The resulting works are fabric reconstructions of images of fabric, a kind of telephone-game re-interpretation where threads are used to represent threads, but in distorted ways. Up close, the loom attempts to recreate the imperfections found in the photographs, with the black background, the areas of blur, and minute color variations all faithfully executed in new fabric. In a few of the works, Oppenheim allows the edges of the weaving process to show, where the patterns of elongated threads are exposed, the images breaking down into strangely beautiful abstractions. The whole exercise feels knottily turned in on itself, the output a distorted echo of the now distant originals.
While there are plenty of moving parts in this show, they all fit together with a pleasing sense of internal logic and aesthetic rigor. Oppenheim’s process is both additive and recursive, the evolution of one idea to another pursued in a step-wise progression that connects the various artistic investigations into one continuum of nuanced thought. That all three sets of works can operate both on this heady intellectual level and more simply on their merits as impressively engaging visual objects is a testament to the growing maturity of Oppenheim’s craft. She’s smartly deconstructing both an unsavory slice of female history and the underlying medium of photography itself, letting us tag along as she systematically disassembles them.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $12000 to $38000 based on size. Oppenheim’s works have begun to slowly enter the secondary markets of late, but there have been too few transactions to reliably chart any price pattern. As a result, gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.