Two discernible genres in photography, portrait and documentation determine Catherine Opie’s current dual-gallery exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in New York. In her inaugural exhibition at the gallery, Opie comes in full throttle, presenting her well-regarded photo-portraits alongside a group of abstracted landscapes in Chelsea, as well as her documentation of the late Elizabeth Taylor’s L.A. mansion in the gallery’s Lower East Side location.
Using her lens as an apparatus for portrayal of marginalized subcultures since the early ‘90s, Opie has played significant role as an artist and an activist in the consolidation of LGBT community amidst prevailing heteronormative systems. As an insider rather than an observer, Opie has been capturing her friends, family and acquaintances in their own locales, bringing conversations around gender and identity politics into the mainstream art scene through the often male-dominated field of photography. Borrowing aesthetic and technical cues from traditional practice, and even from painting as her portrait series have underlined, Opie has amassed an earnest body of work, chronicling the everyday rituals of everyday people.
On view at the Chelsea location are Opie’s photographs of her peers, placed under dramatic lightings and in front of a pitch black background. Enclosed inside circular or rectangular wooden frames, high-profile artists such as Matthew Barney and Kara Walker, iconic performance artists Ron Athey and Julie Tolentino, or designer sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte pose for the artist’s intimate lens, conveying candid and genuine emotions.
Staring piercingly into the camera, or observing ambiguous horizons, Opie’s models, mostly her colleagues who generally stand on the other side of the artistic gaze, unfold warmhearted, yet austere layers in performative or placid postures. In conversation with such horizons are a series of landscapes Opie severely blurred. Indistinct and visceral, these hazy photographs depicting various American landscapes elevate the poignant vigor accompanying these American individuals.
At the Chrystie street location is a series of photographs capturing actress Elizabeth Taylor’s 700 Nimes Road mansion through Opie’s lens, just before Taylor passed away in 2011. Famous for her extravagant and lavish lifestyle as much as for her distinguished acting career, Taylor represents a bygone Hollywood glamour that is mysterious and unachievable, especially compared to the social media driven celebrity culture of today. Exposure of such intimate corners of her domicile, without a single shot of the actress herself, the work unfolds startling components of a life that has been lived in front of cameras in most part, regardless of whether Taylor was working or not.
The real particularity of this project, however, is in Opie’s venture as an artist whose body of work has often focused on marginalized sexuality: butch lesbians, S&M culture, etc. Taylor’s powder colored furnitures or diamonds are blindingly lustrous, and diverge from Opie’s preceding work, which was often indebted to human figures as catalysts for social commentary. Opie’s curious yet subdued approach, straightforward, evidential and descriptive, compliments subject items that seem frozen in time, yet enduring in its force and appeal.
Catherine Opie: Portraits and Landscapes and 700 Nimes Road are on view at Lehmann Maupin through February 20, 2016. A selection of photographs from the 700 Nimes Road series are also on view at the MOCA Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles.
— O.C. Yerebakan