The Cooper Gallery in Dundee, which is located at the heart of the labyrinthine Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Design, provides a poignant site for the first major exhibition of Anna Oppermann’s work in the UK. Higher education and the outmoded relationship between art and design provide rich subject matter for the artist who seeks to unpack the very process of thinking, making and perceiving.
It is Oppermann’s highly celebrated ‘ensemble’ works that are the focus of this exhibition, and the ideas underpinning them have had a perceptible influence on the curatorial direction for the show overall. We are not afforded a glimpse of the real thing in the downstairs ‘project space’; instead we experience the sprawling installations through mediated sources. A digital archive and resource area allow us to skim through the ensembles, the effect revealing the dense layers of cross-referencing found throughout this body of work. A photograph slideshow of the ensembles is projected life-size onto the wall, giving the impression of flattened versions of the otherwise uncontainable and energetic works of art. Oppermann said of her ensembles: ‘Each still life is taken to the next state in the form of a photograph’.
There is a process of compressing and decompressing the components that make up these collage-effect installations: objects, photographs of objects, and photographs of objects with photographs, all feature in these self-reflexive and complex works. This reflexivity is echoed in the split-level curation of the show: downstairs presents a compressed version of Oppermann’s life and work; upstairs a decompressed, physical embodiment represented by archival materials and of course, a real-life ensemble, ‘Cotoneaster horizontalis’ or ‘Anticommunication Design’ (1982–1984).
A cinematic projection above the staircase and a viewing area located at the top of the stairs provides an intermediate space for reflection and prepares us for an experience of Oppermann’s work rooted in the present. The projection shows Oppermann explaining her ensemble work as part of dOCUMENTA 6 in 1977. The artist is remarkably honest in her explanation: ‘the reason I ended up doing what I do came from a conscious inability to make a painting…’
In her lithographs presented in the upstairs gallery, you can sense an artist grappling with problems faced by representational painters and printmakers. Oppermann accounts for the viewer’s position in relation to the work by making them a part of it. Trompe l’oeil features heavily, volume is a preoccupation, and the subject matter is self-reflexive. Looking at these, there is little wonder that Oppermann’s practice exploded so forcefully from the confines of two-dimensionality and into the very real space of the gallery.
In the spacious Cooper Gallery, the 3D rendition of ‘Cotoneaster horizontalis’ has room to expand and spread itself indulgently. Viewed from the far end of the room, the installation rendered in earthy conté tones could be a grand baroque fresco. The effect is transcendental — an atheistic searching for the meaning of it all, manifested through a seemingly frantic arrangement of newspaper cuttings, objects, drawings, photographs and symbols. Up close, one grapples with an evasive logic that is surely present in the endless short-circuiting of information. Oppermann’s ensembles eschew the burden of resolution and here lies their greatest strength: echoing the studio spaces of the surrounding art school, there is a sense of a work in progress, urgent and receptive to the world it so fervently reflects.