Catherine Opie, Rhetorical Landscapes @Lehmann Maupin

JTF (just the facts): A total of 6 large scale color photographs and 4 digital videos, displayed in the single room gallery space on the lower level. All of the photographs are pigment prints, made in 2019. Each is sized 40×60 inches, and is available in an edition of 5. All of the videos are digital video on custom monitors, made in 2019. The works range in duration from 2 minutes 10 seconds to 3 minutes, and each is available in an edition of 3. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Catherine Opie’s recent color photographs made in the Okefenokee swamps of Georgia and Florida are among the most straightforward landscapes she has made in her long artistic career. Set on or above the waterline (perhaps in a boat, on a bridge, or on a nearby riverbank), Opie has framed compositions that are squared off and frontal, putting the still water in the foreground and the marsh, forest, and other thickets of undergrowth front and center. The large scale prints are filled with crisp detail, particularly the crackly dry mosses dripping from the trees and the tactile surfaces of the tree trunks and spiky grasses. And hidden with these scenes, Opie even finds an alligator lurking among the lily pads and calm waters, and a well camouflaged owl sitting quietly in the trees.

Swamps aren’t an obvious landscape subject. They tend not to feature memorably picturesque land formations or graceful vistas, and in general stubbornly resist being photographed at all, given their wet-footed expansiveness. In fact, swamps (and low lying wetlands more broadly) have a somewhat negative reputation, at least among humans – they aren’t useful for building or development, they are filled with thick layers of rot and decay, and they sometimes smell and harbor mosquitoes and other insects that pester us. And so, if we can, we often want to “drain the swamp” to get rid of these annoyances, and from our perspective, clean up the land for more productive uses. Of course, water will run to and collect at low points regardless of what humans want, so nature, in a sense, continually fights back.

Opie’s new landscapes attempt to reclaim the swamp as a source of beauty and respect, and as the title of the show Rhetorical Landscapes implies, she’s overtly making a photographic argument in their favor. To counter the inherent flatness of her subject, Opie either moves in closer to crop out the sky, thereby centering our attention on the layers of natural texture, or steps back to allow the sky to be reflected in the foreground water, creating mirroring effects and silhouetted forms that add interest to her compositions. Her pictures document swamps as complex (and fragile) ecological systems, with flora and fauna in constantly rebalanced and renegotiated equilibrium. And while the political catchphrase of the moment may advocate draining swamps, Opie’s photographs take the other side of the debate, offering ample visual evidence that these delicate ecosystems need to be protected and preserved.

While Opie may be rightfully better known for her portraits (both self, and of others) and for her related explorations of identity, she has also built up a rich and varied photographic investigation of the American landscape. In the 1990s, she sought out the timeless forms found in Chicago freeway overpasses and Los Angeles mini malls. A decade later, she photographed surfers waiting for waves, ice houses on frozen lakes, and expansive views of the Great Lakes, all using formally bisected compositions and monumental scale to heighten the viewer’s experience of the broad emptiness and human vulnerability. Even her series on high school football contains photographs we might call landscapes, with playing fields seen from ground level, bathed in angelic nighttime lighting. More recently, Opie has traveled to America’s national parks, particularly Yosemite, making blurred images of famous waterfalls and vistas that play with our sense of memory and nostalgia. Opie’s new swamp photographs step into this progression, but with a thinner conceptual undercarriage than her previous works – her line of thinking here is relatively direct, leading to photographs that communicate openly and with less allusive complexity.

In recent years, Opie has extended her artistic ambitions beyond the still image to film/video (including The Modernist, from 2019, reviewed here), and this show includes a selection of recent stop motion video collages addressing political themes. Displayed on freestanding monitors designed to resemble smartphones, the videos gather magazine cutouts into cascades of pictures that fall from the top of the screen and arrange themselves on a hand drawn grid. With an edge of caustic caricature, they alternately address guns; immigration and the border situation; slavery, monuments, and Black Lives Matter; and the darkly comic corruption of various members of the Trump cabinet, and while these topics might have offered the potential for incisive artistic insight and biting commentary, Opie’s videos feel a bit too obvious, and lacking in her usual patience and attentive poise. Even if she was trying for something looser and more brash (and the kitschy smartphone-shaped monitors might be evidence of such thinking), the results provide only a surface provocation.

Stepping back to take in the broader sweep of these two projects, they both struggle with thoughtful ideas that resist easy artistic implementation. The swamp concept/subject matter offers a variety of allusive possibilities and layered complexities, many of which Opie tries to leverage – but the swamps themselves are uncooperative in offering up unconventional views and new approaches, leaving Opie with views that underplay her sophisticated authorship. I wanted to find Opie’s swamp landscapes more engaging and original than I actually did, which says something about the amorphous space between intention and outcome, and the photographic challenge some subjects unexpectedly end up posing.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced at $50000 each. Opie’s work has started to show up in the secondary markets with more regularity in recent years, with prices ranging between roughly $2000 and $300000.

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