Catherine Opie: Walls, Windows and Blood @Lehmann Maupin

JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 photographic works, framed and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry gallery. (Installation shots below.)

The following works are included in the show:

  • “Windows”: 15 pigment prints, 2023, sized 40×27, in editions of 5+2AP
  • 1 pigment print, 2023, sized 40×60 inches, in an edition of 5+2AP
  • “Blood Grids”: 3 sets of 12 pigment prints, 2023, each panel sized roughly 11×17 inches, in editions of 5+2AP
  • “Walls”: 6 pigment prints with two marble plinths, 2023, sized 84×30 inches, in editions of 5+2AP

Comments/Context: If you take a glance through a pile of artist resumes, one pattern that will likely emerge is the consistent stops at various artist residencies. A residency is a specific art world activity, one that mixes application, selection, or an “award” on the front end, and a short (perhaps several weeks) economically-supported (or fully paid) trip to a working retreat of some kind on the back end. Many of these residencies are long running and prestigious, in desirably grand or exotic locations, while others are more modest and obscure, but still useful for an artist in need of a break or a fresh dose of inspiration. Some deliberately gather together and mix artists and scholars working in different mediums during the stay, in an effort to catalyze some unexpected cross-pollination of ideas, while others are more solitary, like a stay at a cabin in the woods. The resume of an established or well known artist might feature a number of these residencies sprinkled across the years, almost like mini-sabbaticals from their usual working locations and efforts.

The American Academy in Rome has offered a wide range of prizes, fellowships, and visiting artist residencies for more than a century, and in the summer of 2021, Catherine Opie spent six weeks there, as the Robert Mapplethorpe Resident in Photography. What’s perhaps more unique about her particular trip to Rome is that it took place during the pandemic, so many of the places an artist hanging out in the ancient city might normally visit were either essentially empty (or closed), with far fewer tourists than normal. With that unexpected quiet as an enabling backdrop, Opie focused her attention on the normally crowded and overrun Vatican, making images in and around Vatican City, as well as inside the Vatican Museum. Her results, in the form of several distinct but interrelated bodies of work, take shape in this tightly edited gallery show.

In the years since her 2008 retrospective at the Guggenheim, Opie has continued to explore the nuances of portraiture, particularly in terms of inclusiveness and identity definition, but she has also increasingly turned her attention to the possibilities offered by (and the implications embedded in) landscapes. In her last New York gallery show (in 2020, reviewed here), she ventured into the swamplands of the American south, and in shows before that (in 2019, reviewed here, and in 2016, reviewed here), she used the Modernist architecture of Los Angeles as a setting, and traveled to various national parks to make deliberately blurred images of majestic vistas and waterfalls.

In these and other landscape works made during her long career, Opie has been seeing landscapes as sites that bring with them a whole host of histories, associations, communities, and even aspirations, and not surprisingly, while in Rome, she applied a similar conceptual approach to her visits to the Vatican. Aside from one image of the Pope making a speech from his balcony (flanked by an impressive array of statuary), her photographs avoid both people and the usual itinerary highlights, particularly leaving the Sistine Chapel and other associated galleries nearby generally off her visual checklist. She instead seemingly wandered the silent walkways and hallways, steeping herself in the architectural details of the larger place, and in the opposing ideas of looking out/seeing in and inclusion/exclusion that they quietly embody.

The largest group of images on view here are color photographs of windows, taken from inside the Vatican looking out. For the most part, these are composed with strict precision, cropping down the scene to just the window itself with a small amount of surrounding border, with all the windows vertically-oriented. In a few cases, the windows are essentially opaque, or pebbled to the point of screening rather than transparency, which reorients our attention back into the space we are inhabiting rather than the view out the window. Several others are veiled in one manner or another, with pull down shades that darken the outside view with textural gauziness. But for the most part, the windows are clear, the brightness of the exterior light pushing the interior toward darkness, so the window frames and paned divisions are seen with a darkened silhouetting effect. Through these grids, we see a variety of scenes, including fluffy cloudscapes, close-in wall studies, interior courtyards, and broader vistas of the nearby Roman skyline, a few with an echo of Renaissance paintings. In only a couple of examples is the window actually physically open, so mostly these window studies feel flat and closed in, like portals to another world.

Back outside, Opie made another selection of black-and-white images, this time centered on the corners of the ancient protective walls that surround the Vatican. Her works are particularly tall and narrow, highlighting the strict angles of the meeting walls. Opie made views from both side and outside the walls, so the angles are alternately inward and outward, making locating ourselves decently hard. Up close, the pictures are richly textural, with the interlocked brickwork, architectural detailing, and stubborn natural intrusions all providing tactile additions, and Opie has printed these photographs quite large (and posed them on marble blocks), making them feel even more massive and present in the gallery. Taken as overlooked but enduring symbols of the perspective of the Vatican (and the church more broadly), the spatial dualism of included and excluded is clear.

The last group of pictures Opie made during her residency are grids of fragmentary images of the artworks at the Vatican, all cropped down to just the bloody details: drops, pools, cuts, sword slices, nails through hands, arrows in sides, and outright decapitations. The grids are reminiscent of a similar set of isolations Nan Goldin did at the Louvre a decade or so ago, which were more overtly gestural and romantic; here, Opie has centered on the evidence of violence, which seems to be everywhere in a place that we think of as being filled with peace and love. Since the blood is taken out of context, we of course don’t know which stories or allegories are being depicted, which makes the narrative savagery all the more stylized and mysterious.

The challenge provided by an artistic residency is often intimately intertwined with its location – can a visiting artist find his or her voice in a new setting, or at least come away with some lines of thinking or inspiration that he or she didn’t have before? For Opie, the Vatican, as experienced during the pandemic, seems to have been a place that opened up a few new artistic doors. Almost by definition, the works made in such a short period of time may not benefit from the artistic simmering of a longer gestation period, but that immediacy can also be freeing. The works she made there feel like the varied responses of a searching photographic mind; they are evidence that she saw patterns and rhythms in that place that others had overlooked and that she tried during her short stay to mold them into more complex expressions. As such, the images feel a bit transitory, but they still resonate with the kind of deeper charge we have come to expect from Opie’s work.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show range in price from roughly $40000 to $80000, with the taller works and the grids at the top of that range. Opie’s work has appeared in the secondary markets with more regularity in recent years, with prices ranging between roughly $2000 and $300000.

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