The subjects of Catherine Opie’s academic black-and-white photographs are, as the show’s title informs us, “American Cities.” We see St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and New York. Opie is trying to tap in to the deadpan lucidity of Atget, Abbott, and Evans. She’s drawn to the indexical vision of Edward Ruscha and the lonely 1970s cityscapes of Thomas Struth. Although many of these works are momentarily engaging, Opie’s city pictures flirt with the canned grandeur and romanticism of Ansel Adams.
Nevertheless, some of Opie’s city pictures are laced with a degree of latent psychological content. We know from her past work that Opie is, or was, part of the lesbian BDSM community. She’s known for images of herself and others pierced with needles etc. This ritualized pleasure and pain is here but cloaked in a fascinating blandness and Opie’s rage for normalcy. She likes families and communities. In “American Cities” the streets may always be barren, but it’s as if she’s staking a claim for those, like her, who want to walk these streets alone without feeling afraid.
Far better are pictures of Los Angeles mini-malls, in which Opie gets out of her own way. We see storefronts of a Taiwanese dentist next to an Arab hairdresser next to a Chinese dry cleaner next to an Italian pizzeria run by Vietnamese. Admirers say these pictures are about “urban sprawl.” This is totally wrong. These pictures echo Opie’s urge for normalcy and are images of hope. The mini-malls are portraits of those who have hung placards outside shops in hopes of making their fortune. I love these pictures.