Out and in focus

Catherine Opie at Wexner Center

By Susan Byrnes

Photo: Catherine Opie, Mary, 2012

Photographer Catherine Opie was born in Sandusky, Ohio in 1961. She gained national recognition for her studio portraits of gay, lesbian and transgender men and women, often part of the sadomasochistic leather subculture in San Francisco and Los Angeles, that were featured in the 1995 Whitney Biennial. Since that time, she has continued to explore portraiture as well as produce landscape images inspired by her study of iconic imagery from art history, painting and landscape photography, as seen through the lens of her own experience of identity and culture. Catherine Opie: Portraits and Landscapes, on display at the Wexner Center for the Arts on the campus of the Ohio State University through August 2, will feature her most recent work in both genres.

Opie is currently a fine arts faculty member at UCLA, where she has taught since 2001. Over the course of a career that spans three decades, her work has been featured in well-known venues such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. According to Wexner exhibition curator Bill Horrigan, “The Wexner Center has shown Catherine’s work in the context of group exhibitions, but we’ve wanted to present her work in more depth for a number of years now. Her most recent series of portraits and landscapes struck us as the perfect opportunity to do that —it’s a bold bringing together of the two photographic traditions she’s been faithful to throughout her career. This new series demonstrates how she’s renewing those traditions in an audacious fashion.”

The photographs in the current Wexner exhibition include a new series of richly colored, formally constructed portraits that reflect Opie’s abiding interest in traditions of old master portraiture. Northern Renaissance painter Hans Holbein’s portraits of sixteenth-century aristocrats serve as an influence in her classical approach to background, pose, dress and lighting. Portraits include, according to the artist, “friends and people I admire,” such as artists Matthew Barney, Kara Walker, Jon Baldessari and Glenn Ligon; choreographer Elizabeth Streb; filmmakers John Waters and Miranda July; writers Hilton Als and Jonathan Franzen and Olympic athlete Diana Nyad.

In “Diana,” the swimmer is photographed as a full figure nude, with her back facing the camera. Emerging from the depths of the black background, her deeply tanned skin is interrupted by the unmistakable lines of a swimsuit, etched in bright white flesh. In “Matthew,” the artist is depicted in a pose reminiscent of Holbein’s “Portrait of an Old Man,” with a downward gaze fixed in the distance, luminescent bare skull sharply drawn, and shoulders absorbed into the dark background. Previous subjects also reappear in this series, such as in the portraits “Julie and Pigpen” and “Idexa.” Opie’s earlier portrait series include Portraits (1993-1997), from which the Whitney images were drawn, as well as Domestic (1995-1998) and In and Around Home (2004-2005), which document the domestic spheres of lesbian families in cities across the U.S., as well as the artist’s own family.

Opie’s ongoing landscape works have evolved over the years. Utilizing a variety of styles and formats, she examines with a both a documentary and formalist eye the social and physical aspects of society. Early work explored the built environment through unpopulated urban spaces, such as California freeways, mini-malls and house facades. Later, with her images of crowds and her Surfers (2003) and Icehouses (2001) series, she explored ideas about the natural landscape as social space, with people connected by a common interest. The images are populated or indicate a human presence, as in the village-like setting of the ice fishing houses. The large-scale landscapes on display in the Wexner Center represent yet a new exploration, this time void of any sharp details—they are intentionally unfocused images that depict abstracted but recognizable archetypes of landscape imagery, such as mountains, sunsets and waterfalls.

“Untitled #7” shows a faceted mountain view that quotes Cezanne’s Mont Ste. Victoire. In “Untitled #10,” what seem like pink-orange clouds at sunset quickly shift to suggest other, more corporeal references. “Untitled #5,” perhaps the most abstract of these images, contains a bright orange glow centered in the image that hovers between two dark masses. One can read a sunset in the atmospheric perspective used to create depth in the image, but as in #10, blurred shapes move one’s imagination to create other interpretations.

In a previous exhibition catalog interview, Opie has said, “I am an American photographer, I have represented this country and this culture. And I’m glad that there is a queer, out, dyke artist that’s being called an American photographer.” In a New York Times review of her 2008 mid-career retrospective at the Guggeneheim, writer Holland Cotter said, “The bottom-line subject here, as elsewhere in Ms. Opie’s work, was community—elusive, longed-for, temporary, lost.” This is equally true of the Wexner exhibition; Opie continues to articulate in fine detail the microcosm of her social and intellectual community through the intimacy of portraiture. Alternatively, her new landscape work shifts the macrocosm into a place where the photographic evidence of environment is vaguely familiar, as in a hazy, idealized dream.

Catherine Opie: Portraits and Landscapes will be on view through Sunday, August 2 at the Wexner Center for the Arts, 1871 N. High St. in Columbus. Admission is free for members, college students and those under 18. General public tickets are $8, with $6 tickets available for senior citizens and Ohio State faculty and staff. For more information, please visit wexarts.org.

Eva Buttacavoli is the Executive Director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center. You can reach her at Visuals@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Susan Byrnes at SusanByrnes@DaytonCityPaper.com

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