New York

Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie’s interest in community underpins an increasingly diverse body of work that ranges from life at home with partner, child, and pets to portraits of her neighborhood to the subcultures of Los Angeles (notably, its queer scene and its surfers). She also has a penchant for road trips, and it’s evident from the photographs produced on her journeys across America that she’s attracted to the down-home aesthetics of out-of-the-way places and to folk cultures that haven’t quite caught up to postmillennial modernity. Opie appreciates life lived on one’s own terms and to the fullest, and this optimism, at once personal and political, infuses and unites her art.

Paralleling Opie’s interest in capturing life on the local level is a curiosity about and desire to explore urban environments—New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis. It is this impulse that gave rise to the works on view in her recent show at Gladstone Gallery, and, to an extent, they seem like a jarring departure: Bypassing the humanizing details of neighborhood culture, she turns away from opportunities to measure a city’s pulse and character by its people and vernacular traditions (the very approach that we’ve come to expect from her). Instead, she opts for the hard, cold core of the power grid. Training her camera on concrete, glass, and steel, she captures an endless panorama of supersized corporate monoliths, with their attendant networks of plazas, roadways, and tunnels. The resultant black-and-white prints, with their deeply saturated tonalities, are somber, even melancholic, in large part because the scenes they depict are completely depopulated.

The photographs that constitute the ongoing series “American Cities” are about as far away from the warm California sun as it gets. The depicted sites, typically bustling, were evacuated not by digital means but by Opie’s dedication to shooting in the dead of night. Anyone who’s experienced a major city at, say, dawn on a Sunday knows how tranquil yet exhilarating it can be to feel as if one has the entire place to oneself. Here, for the moment, the world is your oyster; you’re at one with your environment. That sense of intimacy, experienced in a monumental context, can easily be projected onto Opie’s pictures. No people? Not to worry—there’s no trash either, or, it would seem, danger. Swept clean and aglow with cool, tender light, these cityscapes are safe as far as the eye can see.

The illusion of freedom, however, is just that—an imaginative construct, tempered by everything we know about the city but aren’t shown here. Five pictures of Wall Street were all taken less than a year before September 11, 2001. Inadvertently, Opie captured a New York that no longer exists—right down to images of the once gleaming facade of the World Trade Center. The emptiness of the Financial District now conjures intimations of unseen horror. What’s fascinating about Opie’s pictures of deserted urban centers is their openness to such radically different associations.

Jan Avgikos