Catherine Opie: American Photographer @Guggenheim

JTF (just the facts): A total of 177 works, shown in four of the Annex galleries (Levels 2, 4, 5, and 7) adjacent to the main rotunda: 54 panoramic black and white gelatin silver and platinum images of urban architecture on Level 2, 45 color images (primarily portraits, but also interior domestic scenes and house exteriors) through a series of galleries on Level 4, 28 color images (ice houses and surfers) in one room on Level 5, and 50 color images in two galleries (domestic scenes, community images, and television Polaroids in one room, and large scale portraits in the other) on Level 7.

Comments/Context: Catherine Opie’s mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim tells the story of an artist who is consistently and intensely interested in human communities: in how we gather together in temporary and permanent groups, how we associate with and identify each other, how we find company and a sense of place from relations with others, and how we organize and structure the world around us to hold these communities. Her body of work spans portraiture, landscape, city/architectural images, and even a kind of social documentary, and is organized into a number of projects or series that are held together as differing strands of the larger exploration she is interested in. Taken individually, they cross a dazzling variety of genres and types, and show an artist experimenting with different ways to approach and explain the world around her.

The exhibition itself is chopped up into four different sections on the different floors and is grouped somewhat thematically rather than chronologically, so there is a little jumping around that happens if you are trying to follow her progression through time. The Level 2 galleries house her various projects depicting urban architecture. The Freeways series from 1994-1995 are intimate platinum prints of Los Angeles freeway overpasses, accenting their monumental scale and intersecting sculptural forms, absent cars or people or humanity of any kind. (Untitled #40, 1994-1995, at right.) These images contrast the stereotype of Los Angeles freeways as congested, smog ridden, dens of frustration with the surprisingly sublime beauty of these engineered structures. These are stunning works, taken with the loving care of a local. The Mini Malls series from 1997-1998 finds Opie out on Sunday mornings, capturing empty moments in transitional neighborhoods, where the architecture itself shows the cultural transformations and mixings going on around her. These large panoramas, shot from the street level, show the changing dynamics of communities inside Los Angeles, even when these subcultures may not be otherwise apparent from the outside. The more recent Wall Street and Chicago projects use this same large format panorama to tackle other cities and architectural identities with somewhat less success (the Wall Street works echo Thomas Struth’s slightly smaller images of similar empty downtown streets).

The works on Level 4 include many of Opie’s best known images. Her Being and Having and Portraits series are portraits of her friends in the gay, lesbian and transgender communities, against saturated color backgrounds. Opie has acknowledged the influence of 16th century Northern Renaissance portraitist Hans Holbein the Younger on these works, and the photographs (some full size, others 3/4 or torso) have a simple rigor and formality that enhance the beauty of the subjects. There is a warmth in these pictures that distances them from Arbus‘ “freaks”; as you wander through these galleries, these are not specimens from some anthropological exercise – they are people whose triumphant individuality (and human vulnerability) is on display in a way that makes you want to meet and know them.

Opie’s three self portraits (done as part of this series) are among the most powerful works in the show. One shows her with a kindergarten stick figure image of a family with two moms carved into her back (Self-Portrait, 1993 at right), one shows her with a leather hood, arms covered in piercing needles, and the word “Pervert” carved into her chest, and the last shows her nursing her baby son. Together, they ask all sorts of questions about what it means to have a traditional family, what it is to live a life outside the “acceptable” mainstream, and how our common humanity brings us together, regardless of these differences. These are beautifully crafted works of art, full of hard and real emotion.

Two more projects are found on this floor, Domestic and Houses. The Domestic series chronicles the everyday lives of lesbian families from across America, taken by Opie while out on the road in an RV. While these images have a snapshot quality to them (even though she uses a view camera), there are tensions underneath and they are asking some underlying questions about what “family” means (especially when it isn’t a “traditional” family). The Houses images are frontal shots of mansions in Bel Air, where the gates and architectural ornaments have interesting parallels with the tattoos and body piercings of the previous rooms.

On Level 5, a single gallery houses two sets of work, Ice Houses and Surfers, hung on opposite walls facing each other. (Untitled #6, 2003, at right.) Both projects explore the formation of temporary communities (one, fishermen during the short season when the lakes are frozen, and the other, the surfers, clustered together in the expanse of the sea, waiting for the next set of waves). Both groups employ a Sugimoto-like bisecting of the images at the horizon, and the large images dwarf the subjects in the vastness of the environment, the people/shacks often becoming lost or fragmented in the flatness of the fog. Opie has called this combination her Rothko chapel, and together, these works create a meditative environment, where there is quiet waiting and isolation and longing.

On Level 7, Opie’s scenes from her family life, In and Around Home, chronicle her own environment, her home, children and family, and the people and storefronts that make up her multi-racial Los Angeles community. These pictures are interspersed with sets of Polaroids taken directly from her television, mostly of President Bush during the 2004 election season. These are subtler pictures, that aren’t as directly powerful as some of her other work, but perhaps can be thought of as an evolution in her exploration of gender and community, now from the new angle of parent. In the last room are a series of monumental (larger than life size) Polaroid portraits of performance artist Ron Athey. These are spectacular pictures, that draw on martyrdom images from the ages, shown through the modern lens of body modification and pain. There is a jaw-dropping grace and composure in these pictures, where lush textures intermingle with harsh realities.

If there is any single take away from this tremendous show, I think it must center on Opie’s careful and considered approach to her art. All of her work is crisp in detail, formally strong and compositionally meticulous. Like many artists, her subject matter is brought forth from the emotions of her own life and from her own struggles to understand herself and her world. As you look through the body of work she has assembled thus far, the common note is a real and genuine attention to and compassion for those around her, particularly for their attempts to be themselves regardless of what the society around them deems “normal”. In sum, this is without a doubt one the best shows of the year. And don’t miss the audio guide commentary given by Opie herself, as her thoughtful and grounded approach shines through.

Collector’s POV: For our specific collection, we have always thought that a pair or group of the Freeways would fit well and still be representative of her artistic approach. Opie is represented by Gladstone Gallery (here) and Regen Projects (here), and a small amount of her work, from various projects, has been available in the secondary market in the past five years or so.

Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)

Catherine Opie: American Photographer
Through January 7th

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10128

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