Currently on view at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, Catherine Opie returns to her home city for a show of new works that present the city in all of its fascinating, and occasionally frightening nuances. Continuing her photographic practice through a wide range of images and iconographies, the current show, The Modernist also features the artist’s debut filmic project.
The Modernist is a striking reinterpretation of the work of Chris Marker in his seminal film La Jetée, which poses a series of still images as a reflection of horror and pause in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. Here, Opie turns her focus towards the modern landscape of LA. Focusing on contemporary issues like natural disasters, the breakdown of the American political system, global tragedies, and the Los Angeles housing crisis, the film stars Stosh, a.k.a. Pig Pen, a close friend of Opie’s who has appeared in many of her photographs, as a struggling artist who is obsessed with landmark midcentury modern architecture. Stosh moves through space and time in the film, clipping out newspaper headlines, wandering the ghostly skeletons of modernist architecture in the city, eventually setting them ablaze through his own frustration with the stagnation and inability of the city to articulate and realize his desires.
For the exhibition at Regen Projects, Los Angeles-based architect Michael Maltzan constructed a theatre within the gallery in which visitors can view the film. The architectural design of the theatre mimics the lines and curves of the various modernist structures portrayed in the film. Along the walls of the gallery, 33 photographs depicting various scenes from the film provide an alternative way to experience the work. The images seemed ripped from its composition, shots of Pig Pen kneeling inside one building as he sets a first fire, while in another he scopes out a method of entry into a home. Another image shows him setting fire to a small-scale model of the iconic Chemosphere house, its flat, saucer-like bulk glowing with flame. The show also features a range of collage works, ostensibly drawn direct from Pig Pen’s creations during the course of the film. Swirling with condemning phrases and implications of violence, the works seem to echo the tense mood and occasional outbursts of sudden destruction that greet the viewer on screen.
The total result of the show is a subtle sense of ominous dread, one that constantly shifts between the physical objects presented in the gallery, and the stream of images on-screen. Forced to contend with both, the viewer must consider their own roles in the presentation and creation of this same Los Angeles, and perhaps reflect on how their actions may be part of this insurmountable challenge to its protagonist. That the challenge may be insurmountable, or perhaps the effort to save the character futile, is all the more reason to reflect.
The show closes February 17th.
— D. Creahan
Catherine Opie: The Modernist [Regen Projects]