Critics’ Picks

Catherine Opie, Untitled #2 (Swamps), 2019, ink-jet print, 40 x 60".

Catherine Opie, Untitled #2 (Swamps), 2019, ink-jet print, 40 x 60".

Los Angeles

Catherine Opie

Regen Projects
6750 Santa Monica Blvd
February 27–June 20, 2020

Although it opened before the coronavirus-related shutdowns in the United States, Catherine Opie’s exhibition at Regen Projects, “Rhetorical Landscapes,” seems perfectly attuned to the mixture of political rage and cabin fever that so many feel under quarantine. Nine photographs of swamps in the American South hang on the walls and serve as a counterpoint to the animated collages playing on a loop on a circle of Brobdingnagian iPhones (all works 2019). The photographs read as meditations on ecological otherness. Architectural historian Vittoria Di Palma reminds us in her study of early modern land use and cartography, Wasteland: A History (2014), that swamps are places of indeterminacy—they often form around or after lakes and are defined by their status as between land and water—and that our engagement with them is too often exploitative, limited to “rehabilitating” or draining them into compliance with capitalist conceptions of the earth as a contiguous resource exclusively for human gain. If there is an argument in these photographs for a reckoning with this reality, it is a byproduct of the artist’s reveling in the heterogeneity of swamps. Here some vistas are humid, lush, and dense, as in Untitled #4 (Swamps), while others are sparse and potentially dangerous, as in Untitled #2 (Swamps). Far from ciphers of indeterminacy, Opie’s photographs are celebrations of wild difference.

The animated collages operate in another affective register, as they are overt screeds that betray (and extend, via ironic intensification) the egregious political hypocrisies and deficiencies of the US, such as the stockpiling of guns despite the steady increase in mass shootings, the continuing decimation of black and brown people, and the cavalier belligerence toward our shared ecology amid its collapse. The rage is palpable and righteous; the collages assuage and agitate. This is a moment for wailing, yes, and also for recognizing, especially under quarantine, the extraordinary potential of political imagination.