JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 black and white photographs, framed in brown wood and unmatted, and hung in the entry, the main gallery space and the smaller back room. 20 of the works are unique black and white photographs, each sized 24×20 and dated 2012. The original negatives for these images were dated 1870s, 1876, 1908, 1913 and 2011. The other 5 works in the show are unique photograms, sized 24×20 and dated 2012. (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: Lisa Oppenheim’s photographs lie in one of those intersections of overlapping ideas and methods that are so increasingly crowded it is hard to categorize her work into one discrete genre. Her images often start with appropriation, followed by an in-depth investigation of process bordering on performance, all wrapped up in a sense of conceptual rigor and knowing historical reference. It’s a heady mix of background steps and visual allusions, perfect for those who like to parse an artwork into its component parts.
In the Smoke series, Oppenheim begins with images of swirling smoke-filled skies from both long ago oil field fires, refinery explosions, and volcanic eruptions and more recent looting and rioting, and crops them down to abstract billows of cloud formations. She then exposes and solarizes these images using actual fire, both connecting to the original events being depicted and exploring the nuances of the photographic process. A handful of versions are made from each negative, creating a small series of minute variations of light and dark in the clouded sky. Areas of brightness and shadow shift and solidify, in some cases reversing tonality entirely. The title of the show, Equivalents, is of course a reference to Stieglitz’ ephemeral cloud photographs, so it’s clear that Oppenheim is not only aware of the footsteps in which she is following, she is interested in exploring some of the same subtleties of abstraction, albeit in a multi-layered contemporary manner.
The successively folded layers of delicate lace found in the Leisure Work series are a direct reference to Fox Talbot’s early experiments, but with a more conceptual performative twist. In a progression of five images, Oppenheim folds the lace on top of itself over and over again, the final image looking like the unrecognizable dense output from a microscope; seen together, the works are both brainy and intricate. The series of four photographs in the back room starts with a 19th century long exposure view of the moon passing overhead, and then using differing amounts of moonlight to reexpose the negative, Oppenheim creates a set of variations, from a misty grey wash to a high contrast arc. Once again, the subject of the photographs becomes one with the process.
While all of these images have roots in the past, there is a deep sense of both new thinking being applied and real physical involvement taking place. Her works provide both the surface enjoyment of getting lost in the tiny nuances of the ever morphing clouds, watching as the edges of a static form brighten and darken in successive iterations, as well as the thoughtful sense of historical awareness, giving the images an added layer of rich conceptual context.
Collector’s POV: All of the prints in this show are priced at $6500 each. Oppenheim’s work has not yet become consistently available in the secondary markets, so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point.