Editor's note: The following introductory essay from the exhibition catalogue titled Catherine Opie: 1999 & In and Around Home for Catherine Opie: In and Around Home, on exhibit at the the Orange County Museum of Art from June 4 through September 3, 2006, was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on May 8, 2006 with the permission of the Orange County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Orange County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Catherine Opie: Another America
by Elizabeth Armstrong
In the pairing of Catherine Opie's series 1999 with her recent photographs from In and Around Home (2004-2005), the depopulated countryside of America's rural past coexists with the raw vitality of a diverse urban neighborhood. 1999 harks back to Walker Evans's and Dorothea Lange's Depression-era images of the rural countryside undergoing massive change, which are poignant documents of a fragile and vanishing part of our history. Opie's recent photographs of her neighborhood in In and Around Home reflect a similar empathy while showing us the importance of and the variety in the urban and domestic landscape of the contemporary city.
Opie brings a strong conceptual orientation to the shaping and presentation of her work while grounding it solidly within the history of photography. Her MFA thesis project, Master Plan (1986-88), which rigorously chronicled the development of a model housing project in Valencia, California, provided a microcosmic look at American identity that set the stage for much of the artist's subsequent work. The connective tissue running through Opie's photographs from Master Plan to the present is the complex and contradictory terrain of the American physical, social, and cultural landscape.
Born in 1961, the artist came of age in a country that was quickly depleting its open spaces, revered as our foremost resource and as a signifier of the individual freedom and economic plenty that are integral to the American dream. The wide expanses of natural wilderness had long since been replaced by an increasingly monotonous postindustrial landscape. In contrast to the romanticism found in the unspoiled landscape favored by American photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston earlier in the century, a new generation of artists including Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, and others associated with "New Topographics" wielded the often cold objectivity of the camera to focus on the fast-growing urban and suburban environment. The latter artists' analytical and highly structured approach to the man-altered landscape comments on the subjugation of nature while bringing a formal elegance to subject matter that might otherwise be ignored as unduly prosaic.
The post-World War II housing boom dramatically marked the state of California, where Opie spent much of her youth, and not surprisingly, this shifting landscape became an intrinsic part of her work. In addition to Master Plan (1986-88), she has produced other series focusing on a range of structures that make up this built environment, including its soaring freeway overpasses (Freeways, 1994-95), the idiosyncratic facades of its upscale Beverly Hills and Bel Air homes (Houses, 1995-96), and its faceless urban strip malls (Mini-malls, 1997). Where many of the earlier "New Topographies" generation found little of redeeming virtue in similar developments and kept an emotional distance from their subjects, Opie strikes a more humanistic tone. Her images from Master Plan include families who were moving into the model houses of this new community, and some of her best-known bodies of work, such as her Portraits (1993) and Surfers (2004), foreground individual identity, portraying members of the gay and lesbian leather community in Los Angeles, on the one hand, and the youthful surfers of Malibu, on the other.
Over the past twenty years, as Opie has built her prodigious oeuvre, it has become evident that her multifarious and alternative views of community and the American cultural landscape provide a composite portrait of a richly diverse, contradictory, and multilayered society. If 1999 reminds us of a more homogeneous American past, it also dispels any nostalgia for it. The largely abandoned farmhouses and roadside signs of 1999 provide a stark counterpoint to the vibrant urban environment of Opie's recent photographic essay In and Around Home, in which she explores personal and political identity. These photographs capture a nuanced view of another America, populated by a diverse community whose values and identities exist in a contemporary state of flux.
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