Time Out New York / Oct 9–15, 2008

Catherine Opie

“He’s over the pink tutu—it’s Pokémon 24/7 in our house now.” So replies Catherine Opie to a query at the press opening for her Guggenheim survey about Oliver in a Tutu (2004), a candid shot of her then two-year-old son taken during a brief cross-dressing phase. Her answer, delivered with characteristic affability, reveals a contentment with family life that may surprise those who only know the Los Angeles photographer from her more confrontational mid-’90s “Portraits” series, or the somber theatrics of her later collaborations with performance artist Ron Athey. Yet while Opie has famously reflected on marginalized sexualities, she has also made space for issues and interests from all walks of life. As this handsome retrospective makes clear, she is that rare kind of photographer who is able to move between outwardly heterogeneous subjects, with sufficient smarts to not only avoid any hint of dilettantism, but also to unite a raft of separately defined projects into an accomplished, satisfying whole.

As curators Jennifer Blessing and Nat Trotman emphasize in their comprehensive selection and thematic installation, Opie’s overarching concern is with notions of community. The artist’s initial foray—documenting the queer subcultures of San Francisco and Los Angeles, of which she counts herself a member—was fortuitous in that her subject meshed with an already hot art-world topic. The convergence gave a boost to her striking formal images of transgender folk, drag queens and practitioners of body modification, and “Portraits” remains Opie’s best-known series. The photographs, in which sitters adopt regal poses against richly colored backdrops, are as notable for their up-close-and-personal cast as for their art-historical riffs. In much of her subsequent work, people are glimpsed or obscured, and the implied gaze is, if never objective, certainly cooler.

Exemplary of this approach are her “Freeways” (1994–95) and “Houses” (1995) series. In the former, Opie shifts down several gears: These black-and-white prints of L.A. highways are tiny, though their cumulative impression remains monumental. Overpasses arch against the blank California sky, with several unfinished constructions looming portentously overhead. The artist’s treatment of these mammoth structures emphasizes their austere beauty, suggesting sensitivity to the overlap between faceless metropolitan infrastructure and localized psychogeography. In “Houses,” Opie returns to large-scale color for the portrayal of deluxe pads in Beverly Hills and Bel Air, but again keeps her distance. Each forbidding McMansion is seen from outside its fortified gates, turning us into kids with noses pressed against unaffordable windows.

Opie’s jones for architecture continues throughout “American Cities” (1997) and “Domestic” (1995–98). While the former sequence—dispassionate studies of downtown streets and minimalls—appears very much in the vein of “Freeways,” “Domestic” concentrates on more homely settings, taking us inside for a closer look. It also returns to Opie’s comfort zone, picturing lesbian couples in prosaic settings that read as the antithesis of the outré self-consciousness displayed by her earliest subjects. There are no facial piercings or false mustaches in Joanne, Betsy & Olivia, Bayside, New York (1998), for example; the markers of difference are subtler and more complex for their integration into an outwardly conventional mode of living.

“Icehouses” (2001) and “Surfers” (2003), hung here face-to-face in acknowledgement of the ethereal look they share, take a holiday from settled territory in favor of a more natural, untamed terrain. In the former suite, painted wooden hutches belonging to Minnesota ice fishermen huddle along the horizon, makeshift beacons in a wintry expanse. In the latter, Malibu wave-riders paddle out into the ocean’s gray-green depths, similarly dwarfed by their surroundings while seeming to band together for psychic warmth.

It’s always gratifying when the most recent work by an established artist is also the most successful, and such is the case with Opie. “In and Around the Home” (2004–05), the series that includes Oliver, sees the artist relax the tight formatting and exclusive focus of her earlier projects in favor of a slightly more freewheeling approach that allows her to shoot from the hip. The more casual visual language means that the photos’ juxtapositions becomes as significant as their individual content, implying a larger, more open-ended narrative than the isolated images of her earlier work. “In and Around the Home” pictures the intersection of Opie’s own life with her South Central neighborhood, and with the global politico-economic context that, for better or worse, shapes both. The shots have a diversity that skirts expectation and embodies a response to the world that’s as keenly felt as anything else in the artist’s portfolio.

Image: Catherine Opie, Oliver in a Tutu, 2004