Art can be fun

That’s the big takeaway from the small Dennis Oppenheim show

Dennis Oppenheim’s “Tunnel Love”

It’s hard to miss the influx of public art that’s popped up across the Valley in recent years. Whether it’s a majestic crystalline time capsule in the heart of Downtown or charmingly painted utility boxes scattered around the Winchester neighborhood, these projects delight far more than they dismay. True, a chance encounter with a 6-foot-tall concrete beaver might not appeal to everyone, but these beguiling diversions can make a bad day better and a good day great.

Looming on the public-art horizon: another addition to the recently christened 18B arts district. Consisting of two 50-foot illuminating steel paintbrushes, the arts district “gateways” will mark the east/west boundaries of the district along Charleston at Main Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, respectively. Things sure are a-hoppin’ down there.

Paintbrush: Gateways and Other Projects at the Reed Whipple Cultural Center’s art gallery is highlighting the work of gateways artist Dennis Oppenheim. Oppenheim, first prominent in the ’60s for land art and performance, has become a go-to guy for public art that manages to be both conceptual enough to spark curiosity and pop enough to placate the masses.


Dennis Oppenheim’s Paintbrush: Gateways and Other Projects
Three stars
Through April 3. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; free.
Reed Whipple Cultural Center, 229-6211.
Dennis Oppenheim

It’s a great idea: Curate an exhibition focused on a selected public artist, provide context for the work, expand the audience for said project, etc. What’s extra nice about this particular orchestrated coincidence is the quality of the show. Paintbrush stands alone as a super-fun glimpse into the mind of this celebrated artist.

Fun is the operative word here, along with a hefty dose of humor. Paintbrush is dominated by sculptural maquettes—models for much larger pieces often constructed of less permanent materials. This lean show is essentially four ideas for potential public art projects. The resulting vibe is smart-ass mad scientist meets Home Depot.

Take “Burning Contract,” a study for what claims to be a 40-story building. A swirling concoction of perforated metal, clamp lights, mini-fans and fabric, this flickering beacon is hard to resist. The piece looks like a set prop from a low-budget play about the Spanish Inquisition, but in a really good way. Step closer, squint the eyes, and lo and behold ... it’s a rolled-up piece of paper burning in effigy! Potently funny commentary considering Oppenheim works in public art, a field riddled with contracts and deadlines. But the piece itself is not overshadowed by the implications. The real fun for the viewer is alternating between the individual elements themselves and the piece as a whole: A close-up study of a clip fan shifts seamlessly into a chaste conflagration and back again.

This nice bit of gestalt is a defining characteristic of the exhibition. “Metamorphosis” consists of coiled steel suspended in the air like a child’s mobile. It is pierced at intervals with brightly colored Plexiglas shapes, graphic images of identifiable objects that morph into one another. Magically, a violin becomes a paintbrush and a gun evolves into a light bulb.


Other shows worth seeing
Free Range - Marjorie Barrick Museum, UNLV, 895-3381
Work Makes You Free - By Anthony Freda, Trifecta Gallery, 366-7001
Flick of the Wrist - Winchester Community Center, 455-7340
A Phenomenal Photography Show - Brett Wesley Gallery, 818-4826

“Electric Kiss” is a buoyant interpretation of the Hershey’s Kiss. Constructed of yellow, cast-acrylic half-round rods, steel and zip-ties, this yurt-like structure holds multiple references for the artist. Russian onion domes, teardrops and the abstract “kissing” of an architectural form are all directly referenced. But it is the chocolate kiss that remains most playfully recognizable. Even better, the form can be entered and experienced inside as well as out.

Rounding out the exhibition is the sprawling “Tunnel Love,” a puzzle-like floor piece made of cardboard and clip lights. The word “love” is transformed into fine three-dimensional script, intermittently lit by small electric lights. This charming sculpture reads like the plan for a garden maze or tunnel. Here, simple blocks on the floor are beautifully transported into an intricate and fragile ode to an intricate and fragile condition.

Given the playfulness of this Paintbrush, the gateway paintbrushes seem a bit tame by comparison. Also, lack of any overt reference to the project creates a bit of distance between the two, a gap that should soon be remedied by the inclusion of a video about the arts district gateway.

Oppenheim’s public art is big and broad and beautifully crafted, something you almost forget walking through Paintbursh. While the experience of an expertly made object is incomparable, the dashing contingency of these maquettes is inspiring proof that sometimes simple cardboard and a couple of cheap lights can be just as exhilarating as a 6-foot-tall beaver.


Danielle Kelly

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