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Catherine Opie's documentary photography is on display

The artist has a new show starting at Regen Projects next month and has work up at the Long Beach Museum of Art.

January 27, 2013|By Steve Appleford
  • Catherine Opie, artist-photographer.
Catherine Opie, artist-photographer. (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

The room is arranged like a gallery, hung with photographs of various sizes and shapes, framed and unframed, surrounding the artist Catherine Opie, who looks pleased as she observes from a rocking chair.

This studio built behind her house in West Adams is where so many moments from her art and life have unfolded. Back in 2004, she made a self-portrait here, topless and tattooed, nursing her young son, Oliver, against a vivid red curtain. Across her chest were scars left over from a much earlier picture, a one-word message carved into her skin and still faintly reading, "Pervert."

Now Oliver, 10, is seen in a recent photograph holding a pet mouse in a scene that quietly echoes the Leonardo da Vinci painting "Lady With an Ermine."

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"We only got four or five shots and the mouse bit him, and he walked off," says Opie, dressed in jeans and blue suede shoes. "Because I'm his mother, he knows my work so well. So he wants to perform what he thinks I want out of a portrait. It's very interesting, which is really different from anybody else."

The image of Oliver is from a new series of portraits from the Los Angeles photographer, all taken in this room. Nearby is an oval-shaped picture taken from over the shoulder of author Jonathan Franzen as he reads "War and Peace." There are others of swimmer and close friend Diana Nyad displaying a jellyfish sting and another of the gray-bearded conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner. There is a portrait of Pig Pen, one of Opie's most durable subjects since their youth in the San Francisco lesbian community, kissing a woman with blood dripping down their faces.

Opie's newest body of work represents what she calls a "huge departure" for the artist. The brooding photographs will be exhibited at Regen Projects in Los Angeles beginning Feb. 23. She has a show running at the Long Beach Museum of Art through March 24 and is editing photographs she took of Elizabeth Taylor's home and belongings shortly before and after the actress' death.

"I'm comfortable with departures," she says. This time it's in the approach, placing her subjects formally against a deep black backdrop, unlike the rich colors of her earlier portraits. They are often presented in shapes and poses that suggest an earlier time.

"It's the first time I've ever gone to a place of allegory. They are friends and people that I admire," says Opie, as long rolls of colorful seamless backdrops lean against the corner behind her. "I'm going to be 52 and things are shifting for me. I just wanted to make really formal portraits that were more about internal space versus reflecting an external politic. It really is about a place that I inhabit in my mind and body."

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

"Nature is a dream state at this point, that we almost don't have a real relationship to it unless it's people living off the land and killing our own food and going for it," she says. "Our relationship to it is often standing before it, taking out an iPhone, clicking it and then automatically putting it on our Facebook page to show everybody that we've been there. I'm asking people to go back to the sublime and to a place of beauty."

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Opie remains a photography professor at the UCLA art department, and she is an occasional contributor to the New York Times Magazine. Her work first drew significant notice as she photographed the scene in the gay and lesbian community while an undergrad at the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1980s.

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

"I go back and forth, but I never wanted to be the photographer of the gay and lesbian community," Opie says. "I will wave a rainbow flag proudly, but I am not a singular identity. I think a singular identity isn't very interesting, and I'm a little bit more multifaceted as a person than that."

At a lecture this past week at the Hammer Museum, she planned to explore a shift in her work that began in 1999. Until then, her series of urban landscapes were often emptied of people, with elegant but austere pictures from Wall Street, of freeways and Los Angeles mini-malls.

She has since concentrated regularly on scenes of Americans engaged with their environment, gathered for the first Obama inauguration, at the Boy Scout Jamboree, at tea party and immigration rallies. "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 midcareer survey, representing 15 years of work. For the first time, it presented the large arc of her career in one place.

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