Critics’ Picks

Catherine Opie, Artist #2 (The Modernist), 2016, pigment print, 40 x 27".

New York

Catherine Opie

Lehmann Maupin
536 West 22nd Street
November 1 - January 17

Among the photographs on display here is The Modernist (2018), Catherine Opie’s first film: 852 black-and-white photographs sequenced over twenty-two minutes. The proximate reference is Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), another film built from stills and less than half an hour long. Marker uses post–World War III Paris to push it along—Opie opts for Los Angeles and modernist architectural hits of the twentieth century.

Inspired by California’s Lake County fires of 2016, Opie’s nameless character—played by Pig Pen, a trans artist from the Bay Area—decides to burn down several landmark John Lautner buildings, including the Chemosphere and the Sheats-Goldstein Residence. The arsonist is a compressed index of American masculinity: greasy hair, Dickies, Red Wing boots, full-bleed tattoos, and hand-rolled cigarettes. Without dialogue, and for only one glorious moment of sound, Opie tracks Pig Pen’s unfussy physicality as they torch these homes, the physical traces of outdated luxury and niche optimism. Who was supposed to buy all these spaceships?

The Chemosphere may be in the Jetsons portfolio, but that future never arrived, especially for someone like Pig Pen, now looking down the barrel of being erased as a trans person, per a recent edict by Trump’s administration. Opie’s photographs, especially of the wooden matches Pig Pen lights, are sumptuous and calm. In a number of Opie’s tableaux, Pig Pen reclaims the serial killer’s wall collage and turns the trope of the dead-girl map into a mural of dead splendor made with images cut from an imagined LA Times. Opie has been critiquing the built environment for almost thirty years, photographing homes and freeways since the 1990s. The landscape in The Modernist is the Hollywood Hills, but it’s also the American nowhere, the desert that never gets the dream community. The portrait is of Pig Pen, and anyone else who is forbidden to reach that house on a hill. At one point, when Pig Pen sets up small models in a backyard, it looks as if our hero has a plan for swapping out the modernist bubbles with new homes. But it all goes up in flames.