Los Angeles

Catherine Opie

Regen Projects

In Catherine Opie’s recent show, titled “Surfers,” not on view were swells, waves, nor any, uh, surf. Some might applaud her “economy” in deploying one break, one vantage (horizon midframe), one camera position for the fourteen predictably largish photos of surfers, small in the distance, waiting for waves, poor dears idling one or two at a time or in a school of a dozen or so. In other images, Opie posed individual surfers, a rainbow coalition of wannabes, with their boards for a series of banal portraits. I have no problem with wannabes. At least they want to be something. In this case, they probably wanna be hanging ten. Most of the bummed expressions on their faces say, “Lady, did you even notice how bad the surf was today?”

Since the mid-’90s, Rineke Dijkstra’s had squatter’s rights to gray sky as the backdrop for people on beaches—and that’s, well, enough of that. Not only do Opie’s new photographs prove tedious and derivative (not just of Dijkstra), they display no notice of, not to mention passion for, the rather inspiring history of surfing, surfing photography, or surf culture. Opie is not, for example, drawing on a vernacular invented by the great surf photographers of her generation—Jeff Divine, Art Brewer, Dan Merkel—to do something personal or idiosyncratic. In Untitled #12 (Surfers) (all works 2003), fog obscures almost everything. If you mistook this dull picture for one of Opie’s equally uninventive, more occluded, blizzardy icehouse photos, would it make any difference?

Of course, ignorance of surfing wouldn’t necessarily preclude making great art. Tracey Moffatt needed little beyond desire and fearlessness to aim a video camera at guy surfers just being totally hot, themselves, gnarly, especially when trying to keep their manhood covered with impromptu towel sarongs while shedding wet suits (like mermen their tails) to turn into landlubbers. Surfing or surfers were perhaps never Moffatt’s subject, just a prepossessing way to reveal the aggressive eroticism and haptic potential of looking and being looked at. Even if everything else that Moffatt’s done is lousy, there’s still nothing as complex or enjoyable or sexy as Heaven going on here.

The New York Times recently alerted its readers that athletes are big big big in art. With all their teams and regimes and butch commitment, they’re the new “other.” Whatever. I always thought je suis un autre pretty calisthenic. Alterity’s long been a quality, or, rather, commodity, valued above almost all others in the art world. Opie herself first became known for her portraits of the Modern Primitive fag, dyke, and transgendered community in Los Angeles, of which she was famously part. At least then she had the decency to show still-bloody text carved into her own back, proving, I guess, her athleticism. But to claim that in this project or those that followed she illuminated anything about subcultures or social categories is depressingly naive. With a little blood off her back but hardly any sweat off her brow, she’s succeeded in thimble-rigging tourism as investigation. Tourist photographs usually remain hackneyed because they depend on a preconceived, unquestioned, and already stabilized relation to a place or person. With “Surfers,” what’s available and so uncool depends not at all on content but on sheer commodified signature become label: sadly not Op (a surf-biz standard), but Opie.

Bruce Hainley