Saturday, October 25, 2008

Art: Catherine Opie at the Guggenheim

The breadth of Catherine Opie's oeuvre is so extreme, and so disparate, that without knowing this exhibition is her mid-career retrospective, one might mistake it for a poorly-curated amalgamation of six different photographers' work. But to anyone with a bit of art historical background, what quickly emerges as the binding principle of Opie's work is an insistence on grounding deep conceptualism in deep aestheticism. This may be why she is my new artistic hero.

Though I'm not, nor have I ever been, part of the queer and/or body-modification subculture (a subculture with which Opie is a part of and with which she engages intently in more than half the pictures in this show), I am from California, and I do think this helps me identify with her pictures (Opie is based in LA, and California's own particular aesthetic is a strong presence in much of her work as well)—in addition to inuring me to the "shock" of her more sensational portraits of friends who play with gender and body modification (tattoos, piercings, carvings, etc.) There's no doubt that the early Portraits (the most stilted, and, on the whole, least interesting pictures in the show), shots of nearly-nude or suited up men and women who aren't readily identifiable as either, posed against bright backdrops reminiscent of the colors of the gay flag, could be construed as threatening, weird, or even degenerate by an insulated viewer. For me, they simply remind me of home.

And "home" is a, perhaps now the, key concept for Opie. These early Portraits are of her friends, who comprise a community. They inspire an unexpected contrast with Opie's Houses, portraits themselves in a way, of the fronts of Southern California homes built in the 1950s in wealthy areas; there is something equally as campy about their now almost quaint architecture and hedges (think The Flintstones) as the piercings and tattoos and carefully crafted 'dos of Opie's friends: an intensely constructed identity, a surface that masks the inside, to protect it, to defend it, to fake out potential aggressors. Opie might make a different argument, one of opposition: in the Portraits, her friends reveal their innermost secrets, wear their proverbial hearts on their sleeves; the houses, in contrast, seem pristine from the outside, but mask whatever darkness may lurk inside.

Despite the closed gates of the Houses, Opie's relationship with the home and domesticity is actually very healthy—in fact, all of her work pulsates with a vigorous good-health, a comfort, a vitality that one might not expect to see in work that documents a subculture often associated with suffering, darkness, torture, physical and emotional pain. These are not Nan Golden's punk-rock smears of disaffected youth. These are painstakingly made (most often large format) photographs that engage with something seemingly different to show that it is actually the same. This is most apparent in the Domesticity series, in which Opie photographs lesbian couples, sometimes with their children, in their homes, including a few of her own son in hers. She describes a relationship with the snapshot in these photographs, but it is clear that in some of them, particularly one of her son sitting on the floor, bathed in light, shot over the remains of breakfast food on the table, she is also deeply engaged with the Dutch still life painting of domesticity.

The relationship with art history, with painting in particular, is of key importance in what I think are her strongest pictures: the Large Format Polaroids of performance artist Ron Athey and Darryl Carlton/Divinity Fudge. These are perhaps the most affronting photographs; in one, Athey lies in a bed, his head at the bottom of the larger-than-life photograph, his arm raised and his hand delicately curled, twenty hypodermic needles knitted through his tattooed flesh. But the sheets are golden, and the focus fades in the background (the top of the picture, and the bottom of the bed), where his ankles are strapped with leather thongs to the bedpost. Like the others in the series, this is a highly baroque image. In another, we see Athey from the rear, his venous, muscular legs planted in black stiletto heels, one leg up on a platform; he pulls up the voluminous skirts of a tightly-bodiced gown to reveal his tattooed ass, a luxuriantly long string of white pearls issuing forth from his anus (anus not shown). The backdrop is of patterned silk; again, the focus is muted, the colors warm, dark, opulent. At last, an interesting photographic engagement with the history of portraiture that peaked with Ingres' sumptuousness, an aesthetic wealth that draws us in and comforts us, while our stomachs struggle with the needled flesh, the BDSM implications, our desires, our fears, our titillation, without ever being cheap or vulgar or even offensive; this is not Vito Acconci—there is no affront.

Opie is extremely aware of what she is doing here. She shows three self-portraits together; two of which I saw for the first time in an art history class, at which time I formed a strongly unfavorable opinion of Opie, which opinion has clearly reversed now that I have seen the rest of her work. The earliest of these portraits is of her bare back, into which a childish drawing of a house and two female stick figures holding hands have been carved into her skin, which is beaded with blood. The second is from the front; the word "pervert" has been carved, in an elaborate, filigreed typeface, across her chest—it bleeds; her bare, sagging breasts have nipples pierced through with fat bullets; her white stomach is doughy and hangs unabashedly over the waist of her pants (we see just the top of them; she's seated, and the picture is from the waist up). Her entire head is enclosed in a black leather mask/hood, fastened tightly around her neck. Her arms are laced with hypodermic needles, more than twenty on each side. Together, these two pictures were disturbing and revolting when I saw them in my art history book at the age of nineteen. This was sickness; this was an affront. But the third self-portrait of the series changes the first two—narrativizes them in a way. The third self-portrait is, in art historical terms, a Madonna and Child. It is Catherine Opie, again photographed from the waist up, again topless, but this time neither pierced nor bleeding (though tattooed, and still wearing the white raised scar of the word "pervert" marked indelibly across her chest, which is somehow, now that it ceases to bleed, beautiful), holding in her big, brown, capable hands, the perfectly marble, nearly translucent body of her blond baby bay, just over a year old, whose hand and mouth sucks on her breast (perhaps the first anatomically-correct suckling Madonna and Child). The tone is silent, holy, rapturous even. It is whole. In spite of Opie's fluid understanding of gender (she states that some days she feels like a boy, and some days like a girl, then clarifying that she feels more like a girl since she's had a baby), there seems to be a melting away of anger, of rage, and a shift inward, that happens here, which frames the previous two portraits differently, as part of a story, of something that Opie wanted, which she wondered whether she was entitled to have, and which she finally took, thereby finding peace. This is somewhat reductive, because there are serious implications to this narrative (can a woman only find peace in motherhood? Must one be a mother to be a real woman? Can a woman out of touch with her femininity be "cured" by bearing children?). These are all dangerous potential interpretations of Opie's personal narrative, which she is brave enough (some may say reckless enough) to imply, and against which she does not protect, but I'll leave that to be your discussion question when you go to the show.

Meanwhile, I will make the dramatic shift that Opie makes, and that the layout of the museum affirms, and discuss Opie's. . . dare I say less personal work. Perhaps it's safer to call it her more minimalist work, or her more structuralist work, or her work focused outside of, rather than on the site of, the body. This is work that consists of two paired photographic sequences of Ice Houses and Surfers, black and white panoramic shots of Wall Street, Chicago, and Mini-Malls shot in LA, and tiny platinum prints of Freeways. The Houses and Surfers, shown together in a corridor-shaped room, where they face each other, are reminiscent of the German work that comes from the Bechers' students: large-format color pictures made with a cool, detached eye, tracing a receding line of, in one series, ice houses in a field of snow and, in the other, wetsuited surfers, waiting in a flat, gray ocean for the next wave. The pictures are about waiting (the surfer waits for waves, the photographer waits for the shot), and about the uniconographic. They are steeped in the minimalist aesthetic (if you squint, they could be the white canvases of Robert Ryman). The Freeways, conversely, are steeped in the history of photography. They are tiny, stunning platinum prints, a kind of marriage between the tilted architecture of Rodchenko and the yellowed salt and albumin prints of Middle Eastern ruins taken by Francis Frith and Maxime Du Camp in the 1850s. If content-related anxiety distracted us at all from Opie's technical mastery in looking at her other photographs, we see it here in its pure form: silent slabs of concrete curving across a jewelbox panoramic frame. The highways are California's sphinxes, and so for all their unadulterated aestheticism, these pictures are as richly conceptual documents as any of Opie's others, perhaps just less viscerally so. But they are, like most all of her work, stunningly beautiful.

1 comment:

Joni said...

Very nice! I can't believe you like a female photographer's work!! What is the world coming to? The Freeway series is my favorite, I think. Although I do love the Athey with pearls Polaroid, too.