Lisa Oppenheim: Spolia @Tanya Bonakdar

JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 photographic works (and 1 slideshow), variously framed, and hung against white walls in a series of spaces on both floors of the gallery.

The following works are included in the show:

Downstairs 

  • 1 set of 9 gelatin silver prints exposed to firelight, 2021, each sized roughly 16×12 inches, unique
  • 3 gelatin silver prints exposed to firelight, 2022, sized roughly 20×16, 23×19 inches, unique
  • 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints exposed to firelight, 2022, each sized roughly 16×23 inches, unique
  • 2 sets of 4 gelatin silver prints exposed to firelight, 2022, each sized roughly 22×18 inches, unique
  • 1 set of 10 collaged gelatin silver prints, 2022, each sized roughly 35×25 inches, unique

Upstairs 

  • 4 gelatin silver prints exposed to firelight, 2022, sized roughly 24×20 inches, unique
  • 2 sets of 2 gelatin silver prints exposed to firelight, 2022, each sized roughly 23×19 inches, unique
  • 1 set of 3 silver toned gelatin silver prints, 2022, each sized roughly 23×31 inches, unique
  • 1 synchronized double 35 mm slide projector installation, 2022, silent, 3 minutes 30 seconds, in an edition of 1+1AP

(Installation, detail, and slide still shots below.)

Comments/Context: Lisa Oppenheim’s new works consolidate and expand several of the photographic and conceptual techniques she has been exploring over the past decade. It’s a body of recent imagery that represents a continuation and an evolution of her ideas, rather than a clean break, like an effort to keep following the artistic trail for a few more twists and turns, to see if something else surprising appears.

More than a decade ago now, Oppenheim began experimenting with the shifting uncertainty of fire light-based solarization. In her Smoke series from 2012 (reviewed here), she started with archival images of oil field fires and volcanic eruptions, which she cropped down to amorphous images of clouds and then solarized with actual fire, directly linking the process and the subject matter. Her results were darkly ominous, with inversions of light and dark contributing to the unsettled and forbidding mood.

Oppenheim’s current works bring back this approach, but thoughtfully apply it to a new range of similarly resonant subject matter. Her focus this time is on artworks that were stolen by the Nazis during World War II, that were either lost, destroyed, or remain missing (or unrestituted) after all these years. Several multinational groups and task force projects have created databases of such works, and the Nazis were particularly meticulous about documenting their looting, so there are a number of early 1940s era images of artworks that visually record what was taken. Oppenheim has selected a number of these archival photographs, mainly of still life paintings, and used them as source material for her own iterative impressions.

The largest work on view in this show combines fragments of a missing still life painting with overhead views of clouds, the two collaged together into layered composites, and then set into an array of ten sequential variants. The backstory to the work pairs the pieces of the painting (in negative tonalities), previously owned by Adolph Schloss, with the sky view above his former apartment at 38 Avenue Henri Martin in Paris; the cloud studies are sized to match the original size of the painting, providing a sense of scale for this window. As we walk past the work, the clouds meditatively swirl and shift, the firelight-solarized fragments flare and dissolve toward darkness, and the final panel leaves us with just the clouds, the painting itself now gone.

Most of the rest of the works in the show narrow down to cropped fragments of missing still life paintings, in various configurations. Some show us lush clusters of flowers, tabletop arrangements of books and a globe, artfully arranged fruit in a bowl, or a butterfly in the air, the tonalities reversed or tweaked by the solarization, giving the resulting images a sense of drifting impermanence. In a few cases, Oppenheim breaks the picture down further into multiple sub-images, creating repetitions, doublings, and stuttering adjacent overlaps that the solarization changes from frame to frame, so that the arrays never quite coalesce. Upstairs, the compositions focus a bit more intently on the gestural brushwork of various still lifes and landscapes, where flowers in a vase, evergreen trees on a mountainside, or a full moon rising over a hill wrestle with the same solarization effects, the tactile textures often breaking down or wandering into washed out areas of flare. The strongest of these various works pulls a feeling of mysterious elegance out of these fragments and isolations, the loveliness of the bunched flower petals and fruits struggling to find a sense of durable equilibrium, especially when the tonalities reverse and dark and light become strangely intertwined.

Oppenheim takes the Nazi imagery in a slightly different direction in a slideshow work, shown in a darkened side gallery. The Nazis were particularly fond of fine porcelain made of German white clay, and so the looting records are filled with porcelain objects, many from the workshops of Meissen. Oppenheim’s work mixes images of cluttered Meissen storehouses, and then digs deeper to follow the story of a single porcelain cockatoo figurine she found in one of the databases. The archivists at Meissen were able to uncover the molds used to create it, and so Oppenheim made images of these molds, conceptually playing with the positive/negative definitions of photography and a similar logic of molds as negatives which create positive objects.

One additional work included in the show connects back to Oppenheim’s previous works in lace and weaving, from her earlier Leisure Work series and in more recent gallery shows in 2016 and 2017 (reviewed here and here). Here she starts with the geometric patterns of an antique lace scarf from her own collection, which seems to echo a similar lace object in the Nazi restitution records, raising unknowable questions of history and provenance. She then used the lace for a photogram, replacing the silver gelatin in the process with metallic silver to create an additional shine in the knots and beads. The resulting triptych is densely patterned and sparkly, cropped down to ghostly all-over geometries set at an angle.

In many ways, Oppenheim’s works try to find a visual voice for the feeling of loss, via approximations of memory left to fade, warp, or dissolve away. Her many distortions, inversions, and washouts leave us with just fragments, but somehow they feel amplified, like they are all we have left to cling to. Several of the shifting flower clusters grasp for (and find) this moment of graceful elusiveness, where we can’t quite remember everything, but there is still a flicker of emotion attached to the beauty of what remains. That she has bottled such ephemerality is likely what will durably draw viewers to these artworks – it isn’t easy to use photography to capture the fleeting emotions of absence, but the best of the works here find those notes with surprising fidelity.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $12000 to $120000, based on size and the number of panels included. Oppenheim’s works have begun to slowly enter the secondary markets in recent years, 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.

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