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Over and Out

Sarah Oppenheimer's impressive D-17 breaks out of Rice Gallery.

Initially I resisted Sarah Oppenheimer's D-17 at the Rice University Art Gallery. I found the installation — a white-and-silver-edged, aluminum-and-wood structure that spans the gallery space, then moves through its glass walls, over the foyer and out over the entrance — slightly cryptic and a bit too cool.

But once I came to appreciate its subtle complexity and impressive craft, and the way the artist used the project to alter the notoriously difficult space, the very fact that this installation came to exist at all made up for what it lacks in more obvious charms.

It is clear that in coming up with her solution to the spatial problems that Rice Gallery presents, Sarah Oppenheimer had to push the conceptual boundaries of her own work. She did what I am sure many other artists who have shown in that space have wanted to do: break out of the building altogether.

Nash Baker
The installation aims to mimic light.
Nash Baker
The installation aims to mimic light.

Oppenheimer's undertaking is a high-stakes game, both for the artist and for the exhibition's curator, Kimberley Davenport. Under discussion for more than two years, this is the most ambitious project attempted at Rice Gallery, and it was budgeted accordingly. Normally, the gallery hosts two exhibitions per semester, but D-17 has been allotted the entire fall season.

The project took the cooperation of a great many people. In addition to the contributions of her own assistant and intern, Oppenheimer enlisted the help of Rice architecture students and engineers. Joshua Fischer's video documenting the construction of D-17 can only suggest the number of people involved in the project, but it does describe the scope. It also includes illuminating comments by the artist. I recommend it highly as an essential footnote to the piece. Without it a visitor might well come away feeling a bit confused.

Sarah Oppenheimer's previous installations have often involved architectural "interventions" meant to subvert the participant's experience of the surroundings by transforming the area in jarring and often amusing ways. For instance, there's a Through the Looking-Glass mood to 610-3356 (2008), a work that was installed in the fourth floor at Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. Through a superbly crafted wooden depression connected to a conduit channeled through a lower floor of the building and out a window, the viewer ended up staring straight into a patch of a neighbor's backyard.  Oppenheimer calls such interventions "worm hole," "cinema hole" or "horizon hole" — terms that suggest a kind of playful voyeurism.

With its panels of lightweight honeycombed aluminum (a material used in the construction of aircraft) atop a wooden frame, D-17 has an entirely different feel. Although the massive structure retains a certain lightness, it's a departure from Oppenheimer's earlier playful mood: more cerebral and perhaps even a bit ominous.

The artist's aim with D-17 is to mimic light as it beams through the transom over the gallery's entrance, then continues through the foyer and into the gallery. Oppenheimer spent countless hours meticulously documenting the angles upon which various beams shone in during different times of the day.

Selecting these, she constructed the planes of the piece at sometimes bewildering  angles to one another, tracking the play of shadows and illumination that such a beam reveals as it makes its way "inside," widening as it goes and reconfiguring the gallery, which resembles nothing so much as a shoebox awaiting its natural-history diorama. D-17 changes this with a physicality that is hard to ignore (one must duck where the "light's" angle cuts low to the ground) and represents an ingenious use of various spatial and visual dimensions.

Having said that, I have to admit that I generally like my art the way I like my waiter (or, to be more current, server): friendly, well-informed, understandable and clever. If he or she is attractive? Swell, but not altogether necessary. I'm not sure I would have gotten the concept without the aid of Joshua Fischer and his video, and what I would have taken away would have been an altogether more ominous idea: the honeycombed aluminum material, and the angularity of the piece as a whole, made me think more immediately of a plane crashing through the building than of light. At least for this viewer, the material's slickness and lack of color inextricably linked the work to too many unpleasant headlines. I'm fairly sure that this wasn't what Oppenheimer intended.

But hey, some people prefer their waiters a bit aloof. As an engineering marvel and as a concept, D-17 is a must-see. Although the gallery is not open at night, the work can be seen through the front of the building, and this view of the piece is without doubt the most breathtaking. It's a pity that this sight isn't on view on a busy thoroughfare, as its transformation in the evening is spectacular.

D-17 is a coup for the artist and for the Rice University Art Gallery. This is Sarah Oppenheimer's most ambitious attempt yet — in a series of noteworthy projects — to alter our experience of a rather pedestrian space. It will be fascinating to see what's next, both for her and for Rice Gallery.

 
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