New York

Catherine Opie

Jay Gorney Modern Art

While Los Angeles–based artist Catherine Opie is best known for her “straight” portraits of decidedly nonstraight, tattooed and scarified, leather gear–equipped men and women, in this show we are presented with a less familiar, but not entirely inconsistent, side of her photographic practice: large-scale, richly coloristic “portraits” of Beverly Hills houses, and diminutively scaled, exquisitely gray-toned platinum prints showing Los Angeles freeways. If, in her figurative works, Opie presents the body’s surface (skin, decoration, style of haircut) as a map on or through which distinctions of culture and identity can be located, these architectural shots speak about the contradictory condition of surface: they seem to say everything and nothing at all about their putative subjects.

Opie’s photographs of homes may in fact give us another way of looking at the earlier work: our assumption is that the portraits describe a stable subject and identity because everything seems to be laid out for us—biographical information translated into visual phenomena. But does surface in either set of photographs speak for an interior subjectivity? To an extent, Opie’s earlier pictures could be understood as a dovetailing of documentary and portraiture, where the artist’s anthropological and ethnographic leanings were reflected in an effort to map subcultural classifications—even as she pointed to the artificiality of using physiognomic traits to determine and reinforce cultural types. One might suggest that the individuals in these portraits were presented as having “named” themselves in relation to a set of defined and defining codes; and, by extension, the pictures become symbolic of the way represented individuals collaborate with the artist to construct their own apparently specific subject positions. In a sense, Opie used portrait photography as a means of speaking for, with, and to others about those whose mode of visual address circulated within fairly well-defined subcultural territories, even though it also seems plausible to suggest that each picture facilitated the symbolic transportation of visualized identities into other cultural territories. Appearance, though, in Opie’s work is always quietly paradoxical.

Opie’s pictures of houses in Beverly Hills are straightforward to the point of absurdity (Ed Ruscha and Dan Graham come to mind), as if echoing the oddity of a certain Los Angelean ethos: the celebration of surface—the façade—as the site of meaning. These are allegorical images that speak about the precarious relation between exteriority and interiority, how things that are disclosed may repress another reality, and the way in which identity is articulated in something as pedestrian as the “personalized” designs of well-manicured homes. Opie seems to take pleasure in the process of archiving a slice of society that seems, at least on the surface, to be antithetical to her world. It is, on the other hand, possible to imagine that these exclusive homes are responsible for some of the subaltern individuals featured in Opie’s other pictures.

Opie’s lovely “Freeway” series (1994–95) is a metaphorical essay about the nexus of Los Angeles car culture. Largely free of traffic, her desolate roadways stand like monumental relics to a lost civilization. Opie focuses her attentions on the underbelly of these overlapping freeway structures, so it may well be that she would secretly like us to think or fantasize about the sorts of alternately “transgressive” and “conventional” social activities that may have occurred here. These are neutral places, full of potential. A studied neutrality also emerges in relation to the esthetics of Opie’s photos; she has navigated the question of style by cultivating an alluring sort of stylelessness. In her portraits, this effect of stylelessness always seemed to imply that “the artist” could be located, at least symbolically, in relation to—or through—the sexual-cultural politics of her subject. In these built-landscape portraits, however, Opie’s “identity” drifts between Beverly Hills and an anonymous freeway intersection.

Joshua Decter