Catherine Opie: American Photographer

Review

of an Exhibition

by Danielle Linzer

Published on January 08, 2009, Modified on January 31, 2009

  • Description:

    While each individual photographic series on view in “Catherine Opie: American Photographer” at New York’s Guggenheim Museum is compelling on its own, together they comprise a unique and powerful exploration of community and identity. From her intimate documentation of queer subcultures to her clinical examination of urban mini-malls and freeways, Opie’s work in this sprawling mid-career retrospective looks at both the fringes and essence of American culture and the ties that bind us.

    As a result of the Guggenheim’s architecture, the show occupies rooms on four different floors of the Museum. Each room is introduced by a text panel with general information about the exhibition and the specific projects on display, enabling visitors to view the works in any order. I began at the top and worked my way down, starting with Opie’s most recent project, “In and Around Home”. Intimate domestic portraits of the queer artist’s own family are interspersed with images revealing the character of the predominantly African-American southern California neighborhood they inhabit. The series is punctuated by polaroid snapshots that freeze views of the evening news and popular media, rooting the family and the community in a larger society and moment in time.

    Passing back into a much smaller back room, the tone changes dramatically. Enormous, tonally dark, quietly macabre photographic prints dominate the space. A text panel on the wall explains that these are life-size polaroid portraits of Opie’s friend, Ron Athey, a queer performance artist who had been diagnosed with HIV. The images recreate aspects of Athey’s performances, providing a window into the controlled violence and sexuality of the sadomasochistic subculture. The room has the feeling of a tomb, and suggests the hidden nature of these communities within our larger society. A curtain has been drawn back, and what we see is both beautiful and chilling.

    After descending a couple levels, I encountered the next installment of Opie’s exhibition: “Icehouses” and “Surfers”, both of which occupied a single long, rectangular room. On one wall, huge prints show brightly colored ice-fishing houses popping out of icy white backgrounds. They are hung just inches apart, and a continuous horizon line runs through them all. On the opposite wall, large, nearly monochrome blue-gray photographs show tiny surfers floating in the vast Pacific ocean, waiting for waves that never seem to come. The same horizon line is faintly visible as sea meets sky in a hazy blur. I found this room to be the most aesthetically powerful in the show. The simplicity and symmetry of the presentation imbues a powerful sense of the vastness of nature, and once again we are privileged to glimpse communities formed on the edge of society. Considering the environmental stresses these people endure, we are invited to reflect on how we each find and create community on the basis of shared passions. I noticed that visitors quickly fell silent or spoke in hushed tones as they entered the room.

    Descending again, I came to the most extensive portion of the exhibition, in which Opie’s famously colorful and dignified portraits of members of the queer, transgendered, and sadomasochistic communities shared the walls with her provocative self-portraits. The classic studio portraits celebrate the identities of their subjects without reducing them to stereotypes. She photographs her subjects against brightly colored backdrops in an aristocratic style, and viewed together the images form jumbled rainbows. Opie’s self-portraits confront societal stereotypes about gender and sexuality head on. In one particularly powerful image, she appears with the word “pervert” delicately carved into her bare, bleeding chest. In another nearby image, she breast feeds her son, and the word pervert has faded to a faint but visible scar. Throughout this exhibition, I felt a sense of the passage of time— wounds heal, friends pass away, babies are born, the waves roll in. Our communities and perceptions are transformed. Moving into the other rooms on this floor, domestic portraits of lesbian couples and families from all over the country, as well as cold, closed landscapes of wealthy California homes expanded Opie’s exploration of this community beyond her immediate surroundings.

    On the lowest level, I found a series of black and white urban landscapes of city streets, architecture, and mini-malls. While I felt that these works lacked the vibrant intimacy of her later images, the artist’s versatility was refreshing. Her eye manages to remain consistent, despite a near complete departure in terms of subject matter and presentation. On one wall painted a warm robin’s egg blue, tiny platinum prints of Los Angeles freeways shot in a monumental and decontextualized style were striking. By capturing the structures without people, cars, or any signs of life visible, these cultural arteries are depicted as iconic relics of human society. Moving from highly personal photographs of Opie’s own family to dehumanized landscapes, the exhibition showcases Opie’s range and singular vision while inviting viewers to question their own definition of community.

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