3.6 / Review

Inside us all there is a part that would like to burn down our own house

By Bean Gilsdorf December 7, 2011

The title of Geof Oppenheimer’s solo exhibition at Ratio 3 creates an expectation of the artist’s engagement with self-conflicting, hidden compulsions. In fact, the show’s prints, sculptures, and video address the confluence of political verbiage, violence, and the hollowness of nationalism with varying degrees of success. The three groups of works support one another by providing context; the prints and sculptures in the main room, for example, gain much when viewed with the video’s soundtrack playing in the background. But when each group of works is viewed individually, it sometimes falls short of Oppenheimer’s stated intention to interrogate “the ways in which political and social structures are encoded in images and objects.”1

Inside us all there is a part that would like to burn down our own house, 2011; installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco.

On the walls of the main space are the five black-and-white pigment prints of Social Failure and Black Signs (2010). In each photo, a smooth, graceful hand holds up a black card with white text. The phrases on the cards are forceful but opaque. “TOLERATED, AS UNFORTUNATE EXCESSES,” reads one card, while another asserts, “EVERYTHING, BUT IT’S NOT ENOUGH.” These phrases are quotes from interviews with various political figures from Castro to Reagan discussing their ideological failures. The form of the black card, its position aloft, and the text’s implied meanings all work together to position the prints as documentations of protest. Yet the force of demonstration is contradicted by the gentle, elegant grip on the cleanly printed card. Whatever raw energy the words conjure for the redress of grievances is dampened by the poise and domestication of the materials and composition.

In the center of the floor are Modern Ensembles (2010–11), three colorful sculptures made of gunpowder, blackpowder, and smoke dyes detonated inside transparent ballistic plexiglass boxes. Each flawlessly constructed cube is fairly large—around twenty inches in every dimension—and mounted on a footed aluminum base set atop a white pedestal. When Oppenheimer and a former Disney pyrotechnician ignited the volatile chemicals enclosed in the boxes, residue from the discharged powders coated the inside of the plexiglass with soft pink, orange, blue, mauve, and brown splatters. The hues of the exploded materials blend into one another to make lightly marbled patterns across the interior surface of the box, punctuated by small bursts of sharper colors such as yellow and black. The work avoids many common clichés of art that explores conflict (particularly the tendency toward maudlin gestures), but the sweetly attractive colors and immaculate construction contradict the forcefulness of true violence, which often has ugly, ill-defined parameters. The scale and tidiness of Modern Ensembles mimic vitrines—devices for civilized viewing. That reference turns their interior chaos into a spectator’s version of violence, a signifier both produced and witnessed from a privileged, and even academic, remove.

Anthems, 2011; high-definition video; TRT:4:40. Courtesy of the Artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco.

The video in the back room isn’t marred by such reserved mannerliness. Anthems (2011) is a four-minute HD video of actors portraying a military marching band, interspersed with shots of a stark, minimal stage, and a soundtrack of four different national anthems. Most of the footage is of young men in khaki uniforms, marching in small formations across frames that are edited in transparent layers. They come and go across the screen, simultaneously walking toward and away from viewers. The shots are filmed from different angles, which results in a mildly dizzying effect when coupled with the multiplicity of actors in the overlaid frames. The musicians are only miming their roles, however: as they raise trumpets and horns to their faces, the mouthpieces barely touch their lips and their cheeks fail to inflate with air. Viewers can hear crashing cymbals, but never see them onscreen. There is a gap between what the music proposes and what the visuals portray, and it is precisely this space that Anthems invites viewers to contemplate. Dark shots of a minimal stage set that is composed of a propped door and a pair of three-step plywood staircases heighten the slippage. Sometimes the stairs are stacked, with interlocking treads and risers that create a precarious whole leading neither up nor down. The shots of the stage set work well with the exaggerated portrayal of lockstep nationalism, amplifying the video’s focus on theatricality and spectatorship. Eventually the music builds to a crashing, blaring crescendo that breaks into silence, while the video whites out into blankness before the credits roll.

In each of the three parts of the exhibition, Oppenheimer brings an idea into conjunction with its opposite: strong political statements by men softened by clean, feminine articulation; the violence of explosions counteracted by pleasurable swirls of color encased in immaculate chambers; the chest-thumping pride of a national anthem mocked with a theater set and blurred into incoherence. But it is only in the last that the drama of the presentation fully meets the weighty concept behind it. Though Oppenheimer is able to provoke the viewer with the title of the show, it’s clear that the part of us that would like to burn down our own house is a more anarchic creature than the one proposed here.


Inside us all there is a part that would like to burn down our own house is on view at Ratio 3, in San Francisco, through December 10, 2011.


  1. From the press release, Ratio 3, 2011.

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