Catherine Opie’s current exhibition at Regen Projects in Los Angeles shows a marked progression and change in the artist’s work. Though Opie is best known for her portraiture of LGBT subjects, this show includes portraits as well as landscapes (which she has produced in the past, notably in her freeway series) visibly engaged in psychology and art history. The result is poetic and painterly.
The portraits is particular call to mind the romantic, dramatic work of masters such as Goya or Carvaggio. It is not uncommon for Opie’s work to have a dark angle and the visceral and gruesome are not foreign concepts (for instance, her famous 1993 self portrait which shows an image cut into her back). In this show we do see a portrait of a woman with rods struck through her mouth, however this new work is not exclusively dark. A photograph of two shirtless men, one laying against the other, is full of classical mythic romance. Another shows Kate and Laura Mulleavy – the sisters behind Rodarte, with whom Opie has collaborated in the past – in a supportive embrace. The result resembles a Renaissance double portrait. However, the most distinctive engagement with art history or classicism and painting is in the oval photographs, which physically subvert the expected shape of prints and inject a decorative element.
The greatest stride for Opie in this new body of work rests in the landscapes. In past works, figures were shown before landscapes, or else even more literal landscape fragments were presented. These new works distill the landscape to obscure light-marking. The abstract landscapes float lyrically, capturing a truly modern, impressionist ambience.
Additionally, a few pieces take on the still life. These works are not literal, however, but offer brief, haunting glimpses of a lone tree branch immersed in darkness, for example, or a camp fire.
The show expands beyond the white wall space onto the street. Outside the gallery stands a billboard. Its photograph of a burning landscape sits ominously over a city that has often fought wildfires. The image is a slightly more coherent landscape that combines the fire present in the show, and thus the dark sensibility of the work as a whole.
Catherine Opie is on view at Regen Projects, 6750 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, through March 29.