Catherine Opie’s documentary photography is on display



The room is laid out like a gallery, adorned with photographs of various sizes and shapes, framed and unframed, surrounding artist Catherine Opie, who looks delighted as she watches from a rocking chair.

This studio built behind his home in West Adams is where so many moments of his art and life took place. In 2004, she took a self-portrait here, topless and tattooed, breastfeeding her young son, Oliver, against a bright red curtain. On his chest, there were scars left by a much older photo, a one-word message etched into his skin that still faintly read “Pervers.”

Now Oliver, 10, is seen in a recent photograph holding a pet mouse in a scene that quietly echoes Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Lady with an Ermine”.

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“We only had four or five hits and the mouse bit him, and he left,” says Opie, wearing jeans and blue suede shoes. “Because I’m his mother, he knows my job so well. So he wants to interpret what he thinks I want from a portrait. It’s very interesting, which is really different from everyone.

Oliver’s image is from a new series of portraits by the Los Angeles photographer, all taken in this room. Nearby is an oval-shaped photo taken over the shoulder of author Jonathan Franzen as he reads “War and Peace”. There are others by swimmer and close friend Diana Nyad displaying a jellyfish sting and another by gray-bearded concept artist Lawrence Weiner. There’s a portrayal of Pig Pen, one of Opie’s most enduring subjects since they were young in San Francisco’s lesbian community, kissing a woman with blood streaming down their faces.

Opie’s most recent body of work represents what she calls a “huge departure” for the artist. The dark photographs will be on display at Regen Projects in Los Angeles from February 23. She has an exhibition at the Long Beach Museum of Art until March 24 and is editing photographs she took of Elizabeth Taylor’s home and property shortly before and after the actress. ‘ death.

“I’m comfortable with the starts,” she says. This time it is in the approach, formally placing his subjects on a deep black background, unlike the rich colors of his early portraits. They are often presented in shapes and poses that suggest an earlier era.

“This is the first time that I am going to a place of allegory. They are friends and people I admire, ”Opie says, as long rolls of colorful, transparent backdrops lean against the corner behind her. “I’m going to be 52 and things are changing for me. I just wanted to do really formal portraits that were more about internal space than reflecting an external policy. It really is a place I inhabit in my mind and body.

The new portraits are accompanied in the Regen Projects exhibition by a series of abstract landscapes found in nature. Many places are well-known wilderness areas and parks, but the images are intentionally blurry and unidentified. They could be anywhere.

“Nature is a dream state at this point, that we hardly have a real relationship with it, unless it’s people who live off the land and kill our own food and go there”, she says. “Our relationship with him often stands in front of him, pulling out an iPhone, clicking it, and then automatically putting it on our Facebook page to show everyone we’ve been there. I ask people to return to the sublime and to a place of beauty.

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Opie remains a professor of photography in the art department at UCLA and contributes occasionally to the New York Times Magazine. Her work first gained attention when she photographed the gay and lesbian community scene while a student at the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1980s.

It was a community she never left, but her photography continued to explore other corners of life.

“I go back and forth, but I never wanted to be the photographer for the gay and lesbian community,” Opie says. “I will proudly wave a rainbow flag, but I am not a unique identity. I think a singular identity is not very interesting, and I am a little more multifaceted as a person than that.

At a talk last week at the Hammer Museum, she planned to explore a change in her work that began in 1999. Until then, her cityscape series was often empty of people, with elegant but austere images. of Wall Street, freeways and Los Angeles mini-malls.

Since then, she has regularly focused on scenes of Americans engaged with their environment, gathered for Obama’s first inauguration, at the Boy Scout Jamboree, tea parties and immigration gatherings. “The reason I call myself a documentary photographer is the idea of ​​how photographs contain and participate in history,” she explains.

In 2008, the Guggenheim Museum in New York mounted a mid-career survey, representing 15 years of work. For the first time, he presented the great arc of his career in one place.

“She first became known for her portraits and self-portraits and these beautiful landscapes. Somehow they seemed like diverse bodies of work, ”says Jennifer Blessing, the museum’s curator of photography, who curated the exhibit. “But with the exhibition, I became more aware of how she weaves these things together.

“He’s a political person. I like to say that she is an ethical person. She is deeply committed to making the world a better place for herself, for her family and in general, ”said Blessing. “This is a guideline that you see in his early work and certainly until today. This is who she is.

The Guggenheim exhibit was not only a milestone in Opie’s recognition, but was a rare opportunity to study his own progression spread across four floors of the museum. “It gave me a little bit of clarity about walking up these floors and seeing things and understanding that OK, we’ve done this – where do I want to take things?”

In another room in his studio, Epson Printers are slowly rolling out huge prints slated for the Regen exhibit, as part of a long, ongoing relationship with the gallery. In the past, Regen has shown him photos of high school football players and surfers, and Opie’s series of stark images of ice houses on frozen lakes in Minnesota in 2001. A series that opened there- bottom, “Twelve Miles to the Horizon,” of sunrises and sunsets in vertical landscapes, can be found at the Long Beach Museum of Art.

Another much less happy start for Opie came last summer, when she was one of four major artists to resign from the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles following the forced resignation of the chief curator. Paul Schimmel. Opie, John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger and Ed Ruscha left in protest not only because of Schimmel, Opie says, but because of other layoffs and sudden changes.

“The big one for me wasn’t just John [Baldessari] quit first – that was a big red flag – but I had just given them a wallet to sell to save someone’s job in education, ”she says. “And that was about $ 150,000, and literally the next day they let that person go.

“I can’t imagine a board member writing a check for $ 150,000 and making them turn around and let go of the person whose program you are supporting. It was very insulting to me, ”she says.

She occasionally speaks with a few remaining members of the board. Opie says that she and Kruger made their voices heard during their time there, but when changes started to occur, the performers felt left out of the conversation.

“I was like, ‘OK, I don’t have a voice here,'” she said. “I don’t want to be a figurehead. In fact, I want to participate by having real ideas and feelings about what a place like MOCA means to this community.

An unexpected subject for Opie was actress Elizabeth Taylor. They shared an accountant, who suggested Opie consider a photo of the movie star. Opie told her that she hadn’t photographed any celebrities, but that she quickly started to think of Graceland and offered to portray the actress through photos of her belongings and her ranch in Bel. -Air.

The plan was for Opie to photograph Taylor’s house and belongings in varying degrees of detail, and she and Tayor would edit the images into a collection and a book. They hadn’t planned to meet until the photographs were finished.

“She looked at me through the curtains, photographing,” recalls Opie. “I don’t think she would have allowed a portrait. She was not very healthy and she was very private.

Things got surprisingly personal, as she found herself part of the house, having lunch with Taylor’s staff in the kitchen. That feeling was reinforced with Taylor’s death in 2011, although the two never met.

“I continued to photograph as the house started to be dismantled. It was truly amazing how quickly someone’s life is discovered. I was there the day Christie’s came to pick up the jewelry. I photographed Christie’s packing the jewelry for auction.

She is editing this work. What Opie shared reveals glimpses of Taylor’s stylish clothes hanging in closets and a ghostly, fuzzy image of La Peregrina, the pearl necklace husband Richard Burton bought for Taylor in 1969.

“The whole work started as a portrait, then it turned into a memorial,” she says. “It’s a strange thing, the idea of ​​what photography does in this place where it contains history.”

It was a similar experience to when she photographed the World Trade Center towers the same year they fell in 2001. “All of a sudden you’ve got to come to terms with something that’s a major change in the way something is read. It comes with life. It really is an allegory of how we cope.

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