At Regen Projects, Los Angeles
February 23 – March 29, 2013
By: Astra Price
While walking into the Catherine Opie Exhibition at Regen Projects, it would not be surprising for viewers to stop and check their GPS app to make sure that they had arrived at the correct location. The imagery that has become the mainstay of Opie’s work in recent years is not immediately present. Her previous portraits and landscapes found their core in a level of “nowness” and direct interactions with the subject. In earlier photos, workers stare directly into the lens, surfers find their way to the horizon, and the masses contemplate Obama’s election to office. Though employing different visual styles, those images envisioned specific spaces and the people who occupy them.
Opie’s new body of work signals a departure point in some ways, and thematic continuities elsewhere. The images comprising this show create a fictive space. They do not capture a world that already exists beyond Opie’s lens, but instead will a mysterious and dark world into existence. The exhibition contains thirty-one works created in 2012 which can be broken into three categories: landscapes, portraits and supporting details. The photos, with the exception of the landscapes, are composed of a single subject on a black background. The subject is illuminated with rich, sculpted light that immediately alludes to painters such as Caravaggio or17th Century Dutch Masters.
The art historical references are so specific that several of the works on view, for exampleJonathan and Taka, are carefully placed in large matte black oval frames that harken an affluent parlor of a foregone era and aesthetic. It is only upon closely studying the subjects that viewers know that their GPS did not indeed guide them to the wrong gallery, and that they have in fact arrived at an Opie exhibition.
Yet there are hints of her older work: bodies with scars, dripping blood, and subjects from the queer community. The images contain an intensity of texture and color. Highly saturated red, from stitched blood that appears in Kate and Laura (designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy) reappears in the satin string binding lips together in Friends, and on the edging of the tuxedo shirt in the portrait Math. Light seems to glow from flesh, whether time worn as in Diana(swimmer Diana Nyad) or youthful as seen with the portrait of Opie’s son, Oliver and Mrs. Nibbles.
These portraits do not engage the viewer in Opie’s trademark direct viewer/viewed relationship, but they do speak to each other. There is a hushed tone, a secret, and an understanding, that moves back and forth between the images occupying the gallery.Guinevere, a woman in a long flowing light-colored dress, stands facing the right of the frame and looking past the gallery wall space that separates it from the next image. Adjacent isPiper, a young girl in red who is perched on a stool, looks directly into the left of the frame and back at Guinevere. The communication between them, and the other portraits, echoes throughout the large formal space of the gallery.
The landscapes have a similar emotional tonality through providing a location for the constructed narrative that is transpiring between the images. Though similar in tone, these large prints are soft, and diffuse. In terms of contrast and sharpness, they are the complete opposite of the portraits and details. The landscapes demand space: viewed up-close they are a wash of light and color, and viewed from 20ft away, the out of focus quality becomes readable, as though the viewer were looking out into the distance.
In spite of all this darkness and mystery, there is no shame or discomfort displayed in the images. When there is blood or scarification, it is a feature visibly and efficaciously owned by the subject within the frame. In Julie & Pigpen, for instance, a bloody kiss is exchanged but the participants are enthusiastic and the blood their creation. Idexa’s body has been modified by tattoos; her gesture and pose indicates her essential embodiment.
In presentation, Opie’s new body of work comprises something like miniature film in the container of the Regen Projects gallery space, which is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this exhibition that looks so distinctly through the lens of art history. In a sense, the viewer is presented with an outline of a script: the way image types break down ensure that the portraits become characters, that the landscapes become locations, and the supporting details hint at narrative action. Viewers are pushed in and out of physical and emotional viewing distances. The landscape Untitled #8 can only really be understood by standing far across the gallery, while the much smaller supporting image Stump, placed close to Untitled #8, needs to be viewed at a very close distance.
The exhibition becomes performative, and the viewer also performs a multi-woven story as their body and eyes move around the gallery space. However, because of this, many of the works may not be able to hold up on their own. The smaller, supportive images are most dependent on the others. Their narrative requires a subject, much like the two frames of a cinematic jump cut, so they feel incomplete without at least one of the other supportive images, and only comprehensible in relationship to a landscape or portrait.
It will be interesting to see if Opie continues to further explore this typological style that also investigates certain art histories.It is not uncommon for contemporary artists to take a gaze back in history instead of always pushing on the boundaries of the new as they mature. Art history can be a space that feels comfortable and academic, but it can also feel kitsch and overly referential. At least for the moment, Opie is managing to walk the fine line and not fall too far in either direction.