There are some excellent photographs in town now that argue “yes, these are absolutely in the category of fine art” in the “is it” or “isn’t it” everlasting discussion about photography, and the best proof is Catherine Opie‘s current grand installation at Regen Projects. Her work is magnificently installed in a clean, white space and somehow she makes the Los Angeles gallery feel like the Frick in New York. Her pictures measure up to the psychological demands of the formalized gallery space and the trajectory set by Holbein and Rembrandt.
Opie mimics techniques like lighting, composition, and the dark-draped settings of the 16th and 17th century painters who were hired to paint portraits of the royalty and aristocracy. Like the classical paintings, these are strong pictures; they are straight-ahead into the future, forecasting the legacy of the picture; they are intended to be taken seriously. Even the Old Master 1970s conceptualist Lawrence Weiner is straight-forwardly art history, in his dignified, restrained presence (although what is he smoking and why is his shirt unbuttoned). Opie says she refers to art history in her work which gives the viewer a comfortable context for her portraits. The old-fashioned picture is renewed and refreshed by Opie in vivid terms. In an interview with the Guggenheim Museum in 2008, during a major mid-career survey, Opie said:
My work is really simple; I don’t have a lot of hidden agendas. It’s about place and identity and how they inform each other, and that includes myself; but iconic images need to be simple, powerful, and specific.
While she may object to breaking down this cohesive show into a couple of categories, Opie also gives us fine landscape pictures as well these extraordinary documentary portraits of a fascinating cast of characters. They hang together well with their formal content and orientation, and together they establish a traditional old-fashioned gallery environment with portraits and landscapes that are nothing but new, here aligned within a regal space.
Opie returns the gallery environment to a pre-Twentieth Century state, even without lamps and candles, it feels rather domestic, and almost homey. Subjects of the pictures summon lofty respect, beauty far beyond the picture plane is appreciated. With her smart subjects and installation, Opie moves the past up to the present and gathers it all up for the future; she has memorialized her subjects as important people as she crosses all sorts of artificial boundaries about what is an important picture, who shall merit a portrait, and traditional bias about how certain “types” should be captured. Her work is often discussed in terms of community, and various bodies of her past work include pictures of her queer “family,” high school football players, Elizabeth Taylor, freeways, and ice houses.
In the picture Jonathan, Opie makes book-reading look like a retro activity. Oliver & Mrs. Nibbles is a fine riff on the children of yesterdays with their pets. Kate & Laura update the parlor scene with a close examination of the embroidery of a blood smear on a white cloth; the women are attentive to one another and the ceremony is private and elegant; not your predictable parlor scene.
Opie’s portraits of Julie & Pigpen and Rocco give us a solid look into the “other,” and verify the stately manner, indeed, dignity, of the non-traditional models/subjects in retro context. Her landscapes are wonderful as well, here giving us the forest and the sunset which also have been put somewhere deep in our consciousness.
Jane Austen would be so pleased.
Top image: Math, 2012, Pigment Print. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Catherine Opie.
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