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Desert Companion

Gateway to optimism: An interview with Dennis Oppenheim

Dennis Oppenheim on a Las Vegas aesthetic, the mystique of art-making and those giant paintbrushes

Dennis Oppenheim's Paintbrush Gateway is slated for completion this fall: two 45-foot tall steel paintbrushes have already been planted along the sidewalk on East Charleston Boulevard. One brush rises from in front of a dilapidated Siegel Suites franchise at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard, while a second brush sits four hundred feet west in front of the Brett Wesley Gallery and across from the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC). When completed later this fall (there have been technical setbacks), the paintbrushes will emit beams of rainbow-colored light 2,000 feet into the sky, creating a "gateway."

Gateway to what? Irony, perhaps. The Paintbrushes are meant to signal a gateway to the downtown Arts District - but the $750,000 project funded by the City of Las Vegas Arts Commission dwarfs the budget of all other arts activity here combined. The Contemporary Arts Center, now the city's most prominent visual arts organization, is nearly insolvent. Paintbrush Gateway frames an "arts district" that receives virtually no public (or private) funding, and can't do much to present the arts or arts education to the community.

The New York-based Oppenheim was a controversial choice - many local artists produced strong proposals - and the arts community has been critical of his concept. But if the project fails, this will be because it is a monument to misplaced priorities. Will an "arts district" even exist in a few years?

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The paintbrushes are currently in place, but are awaiting realignment and programming of their lights. The nightly light display that will begin this fall should be spectacular and visible across the valley. During the daytime, the paintbrushes don't assert themselves among the clutter of utility poles and signage along this busy stretch of Charleston. So Las Vegans will have to wait and see what happens at night - though, did anyone consider that most people visit the area before sunset?

Regardless of whether the commission was money well spent, this is an opportunity for Nevadans to familiarize themselves with Oppenheim, an undeniably interesting and important figure. Despite many high-profile international public art commissions - he has a reputation for witty, idea-based sculpture - Oppenheim remains best known in the art world for his conceptual practices of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In these, the artist's body registered impinging environmental forces (gravity, sunlight) in stark visual terms. In the iconic Parallel Stress (1970), he suspended his body between pieces of concrete casting on a Brooklyn pier, and in an abandoned pit. The relationship between industrial landscapes and the body is made highly specific. In Reading Position for a Second Degree Burn (1970), Oppenheim documented sunburn by placing a book on his chest and lying in the sun for five hours. These simple, direct acts foregrounded the body as the locus of experience and measurement, and have resonated with artists ever since.

I asked Oppenheim some questions recently via e-mail, about the paintbrushes, art in Las Vegas, and the relationship of his early work and later work. His answers were optimistic. Let's hope a viable art scene can take hold in the shadow of the paintbrushes.

Dennis OppenheimDesert Companion: When many people think of Dennis Oppenheim, they think of your iconic body works from the 1970s - especially Parallel Stress and Reading Position for a Second Degree Burn (that eschewed the art object). How did you move from this to monumental public sculpture? Dennis Oppenheim: I have never been able to be what they call a signature artist. Most of my work comes from ideas. I can usually do only a few versions of each idea. Land Art and Body Art were particularly strong concepts which allowed for a lot of permutations. But nevertheless, I found myself wanting to move onward into something else. This can be dangerous, because the urge to move is not always coupled with a transcendent idea - you can move backwards.

In other words, the urge to constantly seek new territory is not often joined with the development of original concepts. It is as if the urge to change runs rampant for its own sake. Some speculate that these conditions are present because artists fear resting. They fear periods of non-production, they want to keep going.

DC: There is concern among the Las Vegas arts community that paintbrushes are a literal, reductive representation of the arts. As your career attests, much contemporary art has nothing to do with painting. So why paintbrushes?

DO: The image of a paintbrush immediately puts one in the orbit of an artistic arena. When titled and pointed upward with its stroke projecting outward into dark space, it could signify for some, the mystique found in art making itself, the mystery at the end of the brush, the journey into the dark.

To make this projected pathway the gateway to the Arts District could, again, mean to some that they are passing into the mystique.

One of the criticisms of this work was why didn't they hire a sign company to do a work to commemorate the Arts District? It's a good question, because art has taken a lot from neon design companies.

This project places an artwork in a city known for its signage and applauds its flamboyant use of these instruments. It celebrates Las Vegas, rather than placing some esoteric, ego-driven superficially, conjured artwork on the site.

DC: I understand that the paintbrushes weren't your initial proposal. What were your earlier ideas, and how did this commission evolve?

DO: These projects usually stimulate many approaches. Some of them are found economically unrealistic. It is always a process of elimination in order to find a comfort zone.

In the early '40s as a child, I was easily attracted to roadside spectacles. They were my introduction to art. I couldn't get enough of the Sherwin-Williams paint sign showing the endless flow of color over the globe. I love having a work in Las Vegas, the land of spectacles.

DC: What are your thoughts on the role of the arts in Las Vegas - and how did these thoughts inform your sculpture?

DO: It would be nice to think that Las Vegas artists could ricochet their energies on each other, to produce a truly unique vision in the way that some cities occasionally do, like the L.A. Light and Space movement, the Chicago Hairy Who, New York Pop Art and Minimalism and Italian Arte Povera, centered around Turino. I feel that there is a strangeness and ample radiant energies occurring in the location that could legitimately combust into a Las Vegas school.

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