A Review: The Art of Esther Oppenheimer
by Driek Zirinsky, Feb 2, 2023
Originally published in the Boise Weekly
Esther Oppenheimer’s ceramic exhibit, “Controlling Chances,” is now on view in the Student Union Fine Arts Gallery at Boise State, in a dedicated space up the main stairs and over the main entrance. It includes clay works she has made over the past 20 years, and it is the first time she has publicly exhibited her work in all this time. The exhibit is free and open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. until Feb. 19.
Oppenheimer has played a very public role in Boise as a community leader and volunteer, as a mom, as an art teacher in her son’s classroom and as an art therapist. However, I’d call her practice as an artist a well-kept secret known only to a small circle of friends, although she has maintained a studio more or less continuously since returning to Boise as an adult. She describes her studio life as being very personal, a space where she is alone for hours, just being an artist. In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of those friends although I have never seen more than two or three of her works before.
I approached this exhibit thinking about how the title, “Controlling Chances,” informs the art for me. In working with clay, chance plays a huge role. The wet clay can behave unpredictably in the hands of the maker. The color of glazes applied to the surface don’t appear until after firing, when the chemicals in them react to high heat. Sometimes the clay will crack or break in the kiln. For some ceramic works, the process of applying glazes and other objects to the surface and then firing will be repeated several times. Finished works can easily be broken into shards. This is a chancy art form, one with many unknowns and unknown unknowns. The test for the artist lies in how to control what can be controlled, to let chance play its part, and then to meet the resulting challenges.
As an artist, Oppenheimer has been deeply influenced by Japanese aesthetics starting with the time she spent immersed in Japanese culture. “It was fabulous in terms of the clay tradition,” she told me. “And that’s where I fell in love with clay.” She commented that “I was really fascinated with the way that the Japanese had integrated clay. It is just very valuable and important to them, not only in their traditions like the tea ceremony. There is just a certain amount of respect for clay there.” She commented that in the U.S. at that time, work in clay was considered something less than art, just a craft, but in Japan, working with clay was considered a fine art. Afterwards, she started her career as a maker, which included working on a degree in studio art at Boise State University and studying with the ceramicist John Takehara.
At the entrance to the exhibit, a two-part work, Nihon (Japan) fully displays the Japanese aesthetic that informs Oppenheimer’s work. However, she also cites abstract expressionism as an important influence. Following the lead of artists like Helen Frankenthaler and Jasper Johns, in this work she has experimented, drawn on personal memory, used multiple layers and diverse images, and relied on chance. The label says that it is a multi-media work, but that doesn’t do it justice.
Nihon II, around a corner from the first, is the older work, having been started around 2006. But as is typical for her work, the artist has gone back to it over time before it was completed. She told me that “… something will trigger a memory — a lot of memories are in this show for me — and I will go back to a piece and then be able to finish it.” In this collaged work she used gesso to paste tissue-thin Sakuragami paper to a photographic paper sheet, then she ran it through a printer multiple times to apply the imagery. In this case, she cut up a Japanese image from one of her many books and reordered it, turning a simple image into something more complex.
Nihon I, dated 2017, adds botanical and object imagery to the mix. Overlaying both works is a mysterious grid created by applying Japanese lace paper (burgundy colored in Nihon I.) It looks woven, like a curtain through which you are viewing a deeply mysterious, amorphous and private world. I admit I was left wishing these two sumptuous and related works could be seen on the same plane.
Oppenheimer’s most recent work in the exhibit, “The End and the Beginning,” takes its title and inspiration from a poem by Nobel Prize laureate, Wislawa Szymborska (translated by Joanna Treziak.) It starts:
After every war
someone has to clean up.
Straighten themselves after all.
Shards, the debris of broken clay objects and accidents of firing, play a central role in this work, and many of the others in the exhibit. Two of the works in this three-part work are white shards mounted on a black ground. In the first, the shards are attached to the surface with prominent screws in an organized vertical pattern; but in the second, the shards are more randomly attached. If I am to think of war, I think of bombs falling in the night, of explosions and destruction. I think of the London of 1944 and of Kiev today. A diaphanous white cloth is draped haphazardly across the surfaces. It may suggest the fog of war, or the plastic coverings used to cover gaping wounds in buildings. It’s effect in these works is to soften the impact of the stark black on white, perhaps even to start healing them.
The third part of the work is a pile of shards on the floor, the left-overs, the rubble. They are covered with a plexiglass cube, probably a requirement of the exhibition venue, but I wished that they had been left uncovered. Maybe some would have been carried off, or kicked away, but that is in the nature of debris.
Early in her making career, Oppenheimer collected these shards, broken bits of her pottery, connected them with nuts and bolts, and hung them in long strips from the ceiling. She called these assemblages of collected shards, “strands.” One such preserved strand is used in the first work in this series.
Shards have a long history in her life. When she was in the seventh grade, her parents bought a house in the desert on the way to Mountain Home. She recalled a nearby large rock formation with shards on the bottom, probably the chips from the gorgeous columnar basalt that can be seen along the Boise River. “I just loved the way that it changed as it came down,“ she recalled.
The shards and the organization of this work have a psychological dimension as well. Oppenheimer explained to me that the organization of the shards in the three parts of “The Beginning and the End” may refer to cyclical patterns in life when all seems to be under control … until it falls apart in shambles or shards.
Perhaps my favorite part of the exhibit is a long wall of porcelain plaques, each numbered and part of a series. The curator has selected the 10 on exhibit from the 45 works in this series to show the evolution of Oppenheimer’s design ideas and techniques over the past decades. Nine are shown along one wall, the 10th is at a right angle from the others and, in this exhibit, reads as a separate work.
The nine contiguous works are made of porcelain slabs all about a foot square. In each selection, an additional process is added to the work that precedes it in a cumulative way. In the first two, Oppenheimer has pressed a segment of pine with the cone attached into the clay. She says she likes the energy in how the pine needles splay out. After the first firing, oxides are applied to the impressed image. Then the plaque is refired, turning the image into a stunning dark on light “drawing.” These simple and powerful works hold their own amidst the larger and more complex works, part of a series called “White.” In the next two plaques she expands on this process by adding colorful glazes to the surface.
Shards reappear in the middle works in the series, called “Shards,” but in this case the shards are deliberately broken into shapes and applied to the plaque after the botanical forms are in place, then colorful and shiny glazes are applied to the surface. You seem to be looking into glorious deep pools with steppingstones available to carry you safely to the other side. The ninth work is a composite of slabs, arrayed as if a pile of plates had been pushed to one side and left to lean against each other. Here the colors are muted, the glazes matte. It is a beauty! It is hard to pick a favorite from among these nine works.
Finally, in a case in the middle of the gallery space, the curator has arranged about 30 of Oppenheimer’s oldest works dating to 2004. They are all small “vessels,” some sealed at the top, made in white porcelain with dark designs etched into them. Here she has used many of her found materials, like lace, to impress designs into these delicate columns. They are very effective arranged together, seeming to be a village of quirky towers and disjointed chimney pots. They call out to be collected in small groupings, but I, who love them, would be hard pressed to select just a few.
I want to thank Fonda Portales, the curator of the Fine Art Gallery in the Boise State Student Union, for bringing the art of Esther Oppenheimer to public view. Again, the exhibit is free and open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. until Feb 19. The Gallery is located on the second floor of the building at the top of the main staircase. Don’t be deterred from seeing this exhibit by the parking at Boise State. The Lincoln Garage right across from the Student Union Building has metered parking. There is a pay parking lot along University Boulevard a few steps away, and a few metered spaces in the lot west of the Student Union building, as well as a few metered spaces behind the building.