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A long way from Mayberry

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  December 14, 2008 09:32 AM

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"Untitled #11 (Freeways)" by Catherine Opie
(Courtesy of the Artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles)

Catherine Opie's work takes in a whole country

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff

NEW YORK - The most famous Opie in American culture, a cute little tow-head, is the son of the widowed sheriff of a small North Carolina town, Mayberry. Far from any city, it's full of folks with names like Goober and Aunt Bee, all of them ardently straight and sexually oblivious.

Catherine Opie is no relation.

It's not just that she's a large, tattooed lesbian who lives in Los Angeles and first made a reputation in the '90s photographing California gays (though that helps). Even when Opie's work isn't political it's a world away from any kind of rural idyll. Opie, who has a vigorously eclectic body of work, has also photographed cityscapes and highways and surfers. Her art has taken her to many places, both figurative and literal. All of them are a long way from Mayberry.

The title of her mid-career retrospective, "Catherine Opie: American Photographer," which runs at New York's Guggenheim Museum through Jan. 7, is apt. Opie may not be a typical American. Who is? But she's interested in numerous aspects of the wild variousness of this continent-spanning country. No wonder there are some 200 images in the show and it extends over several floors of the Guggenheim. Opie covers a lot of territory.

What she specializes in is a sociology - an anthropology? - of fringes. Her frequent recourse to series underscores this idea of her as researcher or archivist. The most obvious example of Opie's affinity for the marginal is her forthrightly confrontational portraits from the '90s of the sexually heterodox. (The person being confronted isn't the subject but the viewer.) Opie presents a flaunting parade of tattoos and studs and belligerent hair. Yet balancing the paraders' shock value is a sense of them as flesh-and-blood people living lives as well as playing roles.

Jerome Caja
"Jerome Caja"
(Courtesy of the Artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles)

That sense of lives being lived is even more present in the pictures Opie has taken of unorthodox domestic arrangements throughout the United States and of her own South Central LA neighborhood. What we see is rather more subdued than in the earlier images, but still well outside the mainstream.

Any stream, main or otherwise, requires two banks for definition. One senses the wicked delight Opie took in traveling slightly north and west to photograph facades in Beverly Hills for her "Houses" series. The owners of those homes are no less on the fringe than the drag queens and S&M devotees living a few ZIP codes away.

Ghastly and dead (not to mention luxurious), the Beverly Hills houses contrast with the structures Opie photographed for her "Untitled (Freeway)" series. Where the absence of people in "Houses" seems like an accusation, their absence from "Freeways" heightens a feeling of monumentality.

That monumentality is an impressive accomplishment, as the prints are just 2 1/4 inches by 6 3/4 inches. Opie's camera all but caresses the engineering. Those curves! Those buttresses! Recalling Walker Evans's pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge, these images have an elegance and allure - if also an inhumanity - absent from Opie's portraits. It's as if the landscape needs these structures more than they need the landscape. They don't just adorn it; they complete it.

The "Freeway" pictures are platinum prints. Their pre-patinated appearance makes the roads look like Roman aqueducts. It's a lovely effect. Just as Opie has no one subject, neither has she any one technique. She shoots in color as well as black and white. She employs several types of cameras, including a view camera and a panoramic camera. One of her prints is as likely to be life-sized as a Polaroid snapshot.

The success of the freeway pictures raises an odd question: Are Opie's pictures better off depopulated? There's something cold about her portraiture. That coldness seems all the stranger considering the California light and colors that fill so many of these images, not to mention the in-your-face charge her portrait subjects give off and her connectedness to them (clinical Opie is not). There's a coldness, too, in her architectural studies - Wall Street, other cityscapes, mini-malls, none of them with people visible - but the coldness suits. Or, rather, it seems not so much cold as austere.

When Opie has a subject that actually is cold, her "Untitled (Icehouse)" series, the results are extraordinary. In 2001, she used a view camera, which requires a very long exposure time, to photograph the shacks ice fishermen build on frozen lakes in Minnesota. Fourteen of the pictures are at the Guggenheim. They're overwhelmingly big, 50 inches by 40 inches, and phenomenally beautiful. It's as if a gifted color-field painter has gone minimalist (or vice versa). A single stripe of color (the houses or distant trees) divides an otherwise-inviolate plane of white (snow) and gray (sky).

Facing the "Icehouse" photographs - it's very tempting to say "paintings" - are 14 examples of Opie's "Untitled (Surfers)" series. This is no gnarly, shoot-the-curl presentation. Again using a view camera, and photographing from a distance, Opie creates a nearly Zen sense of atmospheric repose: a melding of white, gray, and green dotted with black (the largely submerged surfers in their wet suits).

The gallery with the "Icehouse" and "Surfers" images is a visual oasis within the show. Yet Minnesota and Malibu (where she shot the latter pictures) are no less a part of America than South Central LA or Wall Street. It's a whole country Opie's striving to take in, and there's something grand and thrilling about her ambition. There's even a sense in which, while she may not encompass Goober and Aunt Bee, she comes close, at least geographically. The same-sex couple in "Tammy Rae & Kaia, Durham, North Carolina" can't be that far from Mayberry - as the crow flies, if not as Opie photographs.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.


Catherine Opie: American Photographer
Through Jan. 7
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Ave., New York

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