Catherine Opie at Regen Projects
A seated woman embroiders in brilliant red on fabric that is held in a white crewel hoop; stitching, she listens to another woman whisper. This second woman is dressed in white, like the hoop, or frame. Her dress is a gown. I think of ballet secondly, but first I think of Philomela; for although she is whispering (to her sister?), this woman depicted by Catherine Opie is silent because she is in a photograph.
The two reds in the stitching look very much like dripping blood, and also like a vagina. The fabric, which has a zipper, must be for a garment.
The second large, figurative work in this exhibition shows two men. One man is laying in the other’s lap. Both these men are bearded, shirtless and unshod, both have body hair that looks untrimmed. One has freckles and the other has a tan line at his shirtsleeves. Although posed, the physical presence of the men, of their bodies, is natural and unaffected.
The man laying is looking up and out, to his right, while his partner looks down at him. His eyes are blue, like the faded blue of his partner’s jeans. This man is holding his partner’s shoulder with one hand and his foot with the other. His own foot is lighted in the far corner of the photograph.
This picture is a very queer Pietá – a very bear Pietá – and it makes a very personal statement of tenderness, of self-awareness and – a little – of desire.
The gentlemen, like all the figures in this show, are 3/5 my size, and in the case of this Pieta, they hang below my eye level; I feel possessive of them, and protective.
Untitled #1 uses as its subject Opie’s printing and her photographic methods. The ‘picture’ looks like stars in a black sky, or snowflakes; through these one can see snow covered pine boughs. Moving from the dense blacks of the background to the varying intensities of white of the spots, my eyes are dazzled, and I get blind spots that move as my gaze moves; it’s like looking into the sun for a moment. It helps that the application of pigment to paper has its own densities, and so some of the black areas appear as though physically manifested on the paper. Behind all this the trees in the background become the Milky Way.
Opie’s photographs idealize her subjects. In past photos freeway interchanges were isolated against the sky, surfers would be photographed portrait style on the beach, with the seashore horizon behind them or as diminutive black figures in the distance, defining by their presence that same horizon. In her titles, Opie’s subjects are called out for themselves: LA Houses, Mini-malls, Ice Houses, High school football players, Girlfriends and Portraits; in the case of photographs of people a first name is given and this offers the viewer a specificity beyond the identity. But the isolated nature of these people and landscape features does speak of an interest in identity, as a definable and possibly fixed thing. Football players are very much football players, even if we know their name is “Dusty” and the queers of her Portraits series for the most part can only be seen as queer, although again, we know their names, we know that Opie knows these people.
In what might be their natural settings, Opie’s people are cleaned up; if there are scars, the scars are beautiful, surfers are clean and look respectable, as do the queers, absurd as they are; her LA Houses are tidy. This has been her practice: to isolate and to comment upon by observing – and to offer for our comment and understanding by presenting.
In these new photos I find the possibility for a deeper reading. Layering drama and myth over her people – her co-workers and friends – breaks the boundaries of Opie’s isolating backgrounds. Allowing this subjectivity in lets me consider the people as people, as individuals. In this new show, Opie’s subjects still are, as in the past, separated from life: they are extremely well-lit, they are photographed with super clarity and printed to an extreme of exactitude; but while they lack the messiness of humans, the photographs point to stories that are very human.
Catherine Opie closes on Friday, March 29 at Regen Projects.
I gathered some images for this post from Dr. Marcus Bunyan’s Art Blart website, a Melbourne-based international art blog.