Dykes! Tutus! Off-ramps! The Guggenheim Mounts a Catherine Opie Retrospective

A freeway to her scars in American Photographer

It's notoriously difficult to mount a show in Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim. Catherine Opie has been spared the usual Trial by Rotunda, however—or the gladiatorial Wright vs. artist bout—by having her mid-career survey parceled into the wings off the main spiral and spread over four floors.

This fractured presentation would be disastrous for some artists, but it kind of works for Opie. Rather than building a chronological narrative about the artist's evolution, the curators have used the layout to highlight her varied output and build a thesis supporting the show's cunning title, "Catherine Opie: American Photographer." (After all, what's an American photographer? Or, more broadly, an American?)

In the first room, on the second floor, we meet Opie the über-formalist. Here are photographs of American cities, mini-malls, and depopulated freeways, all printed in black and white. You feel the specters of Bernd and Hilla Becher and Thomas Struth—European artists who turned scientific documentation into High German conceptual practice. But Opie is also aligned with Americans like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, whose images drew power from their connection to particular locales; with Robert Adams and Ed Ruscha, who photographed the postwar American West; and even with Julius Shulman, whose architectural photographs celebrate midcentury modernism, America, and progress.

Think Manet: Divinity Fudge, 1997
Courtesy Catherine Opie and Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Think Manet: Divinity Fudge, 1997

Details

'Catherine Opie: American Photographer'
The Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue
Through January 7

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The first photograph you encounter, if you're taking the usual clockwise turn, is particularly loaded: a black-and-white inkjet print from 2001 called Untitled #9 (Wall Street), in which the lower portion of a World Trade Center tower is visible between two dark buildings. It's a starkly formalist study, but it also lays the foundation for the show's larger argument: That, despite what conservatives might describe as Opie's "lifestyle choices"—artist, lesbian, s/m and leather devotee—she's as psychically/emotionally invested in this land as you and me.

Opie's formalism reaches a peak at the end of the room with the Freeway photographs from the mid-1990s. Taken with a panoramic camera on early weekend mornings, when the freeways were clear of cars, they are simultaneously eerie and beautiful, apocalyptic and utopian. Printed as platinum prints, they look almost like 19th-century photographs—or unique pencil drawings.

Then we switch. When you find the next room, up the winding ramp, you come face to face with the identity-politics Opie. Here are headshots of dykes with fake facial hair from the 1991 series Being and Having (a retort to Lacan's assertion that while men "have" the phallus, women "are" the phallus). Opie then expanded the portraits to larger-scale ones, with gender-bending sitters posing against flat, colored backgrounds à la Manet or Paul Outerbridge. Also on this floor are domestic scenes with all-American lesbian couples from North Carolina to Oklahoma (and coastal cultural elites, such as photos of New York artists Deborah Kass and partner Patricia Cronin, and L Word creator Ilene Chaiken floating in a pool with her pregnant then-partner, Miggi Hood).

Opie's self-portraits—among her best-known works—are at the end of the room, but separated by strategic lighting and wall color, like a church apse from a nave (fitting for the goth tone of this period in her work). The most famous self-portrait shows Opie from behind, a stick-figure drawing of two lesbians under a sunny sky carved into her back with a scalpel. In Self-Portrait/Pervert (1994), she wears a leather hood; needles have been inserted along the length of her arms and the word "pervert" has been sliced, fresh and bloody, into her chest. In a third self-portrait from 2004, she nurses her blond son; the word "pervert" is still faintly visible, like light scratch marks, above her breasts.

What else? Façades of Hollywood Regency homes in Beverly Hills and Bel Air that function like portraits. On the next floor, a wall of color photographs of ice-fishing shacks on Minnesotan lakes facing misty views of California surfers sitting on their boards in the water. (Sadly, her unidealized, pimply portraits sabotaging the myth of the blond-and-beautiful surfer aren't here.) The hall-of-mirrors presentation is a mannered one, but it highlights Opie's skill at conversing with art history, with Asian landscape painting, Casper David Friedrich's famous Monk by the Sea, or Gustave Le Gray's 19th-century photographic seascapes.

The top floor is my least favorite. Aside from the melodramatic large-scale color Polaroids of extreme performance artist Ron Athey in the back room, it mostly covers the last half-decade of Opie's career, since she became a tenured professor at UCLA and—with her partner,the painter Julie Burleigh—bought a house in the West Adams neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles.

In and Around Home, as it's called, tries to link the scary domestic-political scene of post-9/11 America with the tranquil domesticity the artist has found with Burleigh and their son, Oliver. The photos in this group are a lackluster bunch, from the diminutive Polaroids of Bush taken from a television screen to neighborhood wall murals and yard signs, and a portrait of Opie taken by Burleigh, sitting in their doorway in her pajamas and slippers with their dog (a far cry, obviously, from the leather days).

Someone I ran into at the show called this floor "lazy and boring." I wouldn't go that far. There is one standout: Oliver in a Tutu (2004), a portrait of Opie's son perched on a chair wearing a paper crown and a hot-pink tutu. Gently but stridently political, it serves as a perfect update—or rejoinder, perhaps—to Edward Weston's (formalized) and Sally Mann's (sexualized) portraits of their children.

The mid-career retrospective is often a mixed blessing: a monument to youthful achievement couched as a scary signal that your best days may be behind you. In the case of Opie, I take the outcome personally. In the mid-'90s, I liked her work so much that the band I was in used one of her freeway photographs for a CD cover. Revisiting her oeuvre now, I am impressed by how she's mixed technical chops with critical theory (she is, after all, a product of the '80s and early '90s) and an activist's humanity. Sure, I'm disappointed by the recent work. But I'm pulling for an Opie comeback, since, as Oliver in a Tutu shows, the domesticated art-professor mom still has teeth, even if they're no longer as sharp as scalpels.

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