Critics’ Picks

Catherine Opie, Untitled #2 (Tea Party Rally), 2010, color photograph, 16 x 24”.

Catherine Opie, Untitled #2 (Tea Party Rally), 2010, color photograph, 16 x 24”.


Catherine Opie

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
25 Harbor Shore Drive
April 15–September 5, 2011

Pro-immigration marches, Tea Party rallies, Barack Obama’s inauguration, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree: These seem to be subjects better suited to an “off-the-hip” photographer than the immaculate imagemaker Catherine Opie. Yet this exhibition, which serves up the artist’s recent output, makes a strong case for Opie as a documentarian of our politically divisive times. Two bodies of work are on display here: the profusion of rallies, festivals, and political events, and “Twelve Miles to the Horizon,” 2009, a series of nearly two dozen photographs documenting the sunrises and sunsets during a shipping container’s ten-day journey from Busan, South Korea, to Long Beach, California. The level and centered horizon line that runs through all the latter works throws focus on the ever-changing weather conditions at sea––and more than faintly echoes Roni Horn’s series “Still Water (The River Thames, for Example),” 1999, which was on view in her retrospective here last year. The bleeding colors of Opie’s seascapes––deep gloaming purples, gray-blues, and puddles of burning orange––are in striking contrast to the protest photographs, whose blocky colors do not, in fact, run.

In one wall label, Opie claims she is attempting “to find a notion of common ground.” The exhibition is organized with the horizon pictures circumscribing the political ones and thus potentially muting their rhetorical power. But don’t be deceived. In the dead center of the room there is a literal face-off between photographs from Obama’s inauguration and ones from a Tea Party rally. These images are Jumbotrons, all rah-rah red, white, and blue. Placed in the middle of the show, they force viewers to limn Opie’s phantom common ground. Like the horizon line that disappears in the midocean fog and yet still separates the water from the air, the line here is difficult to locate precisely. If the show tackles the limits of description, the photographs quickly become containers for a host of feelings––from rage to reverence.