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Catherine Opie: American Photographer

September 26, 2008 - January 7, 2009


Since the early 1990s, Catherine Opie has produced a complex body of photographic work, adopting such diverse genres as studio portraiture, landscape photography, and urban street photography to explore notions of communal, sexual, and cultural identity. From her early portraits of queer subcultures to her expansive urban landscapes, Opie has offered profound insights into the conditions in which communities form and the terms by which they are defined. All the while she has maintained a strict formal rigor, working in stark and provocative color as well as richly toned black and white. Influenced by social documentary photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and August Sander, Opie underscores and elevates the poignant yet unsettling veracity of her subjects. (left: Catherine Opie, Rainbow Kite, 2005. Chromogenic print, 30 x 40 inches (76.2 x 101.6 cm), Edition of 5.Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles)

The exhibition will gather together significant examples from several of Opie's most important series in a major mid-career survey. Though Opie's photographs have been shown extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan -- including one-person exhibitions at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut; Artpace, San Antonio; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California; St. Louis Art Museum; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Photographers' Gallery, London -- no single exhibition has yet offered an overview of her richly diverse artistic projects. Catherine Opie: American Photographer will serve to fill this void.

Opie first came to prominence with her Portraits series (1993-97), which celebrates the queer community in San Francisco and Los Angeles, including practitioners of drag, transgendered people, and performance artists. Set against brilliantly colored backgrounds, these figures confront the viewer with intense gazes, asserting their individuality and destabilizing conventional notions of gender. Opie describes these sitters, all of whom she knew personally, as her "royal family"; by adopting a style inspired by portraitists like the 16th-century German painter Hans Holbein, she offers an affirmative and even tender portrayal of a subculture often rendered invisible by dominant cultural norms.

Concurrently with the Portraits, in the mid-1990s Opie began to photograph urban landscapes throughout Los Angeles. Her first city series, Freeways (1994-95), pictures the city's highways devoid of human presence, their sweeping slabs of concrete set against the sky. Nearly abstract and printed on an intimate scale, these photographs are nonetheless analogous to Opie's portraits in their majesty. As documents of a primary aspect of daily travel in Los Angeles, the Freeways suggest that the strategies and structures intended to connect people can in fact divide them. (right: Catherine Opie, Untitled #40 (Freeways), 1994, Platinum print, 2 1/4 x 6 3/4 inches (5.7 x 17.1 cm), Edition of 5. Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles)

The Houses series (1995) continued Opie's urban exploration through crisp, frontal views of Beverly Hills and Bel Air mansions that, like the Freeways, appear devoid of human presence. Yet each pristine façade retains as distinct a character as each of the friends Opie portrays-these houses structure and signify the community within which their occupants exist. Symbols of the archetypal "American Dream," they are nonetheless armed with complex security systems, massive doors, and ornate gates, marking an entirely separate community, one closed off to the artist, the viewer, and the rest of the surrounding city. (left: Catherine Opie, House #1 (Beverly Hills), 1995, Chromogenic print, 40 x 50 inches (101.6 x 127 cm), Edition of 5. Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles)

Opie's interests in portraiture and domestic architecture continued to develop, and began to merge, in her series Domestic (1995-98). Produced during a three-month trip across the country, these large-scale, color photographs document lesbian families engaged in everyday household activities, in settings varying from city apartments to country homes. Repositioning these unconventional families within the iconography of the classic American home, Opie envisions a more inclusive, complex image of the contemporary family. More recently, Opie has turned to her own domestic life in the series In and Around Home (2004-05), in which she photographs her own family and friends amidst the diverse cultural setting of her Los Angeles neighborhood.

Following the Freeways, Opie has continued to investigate the ways communities form and display themselves within urban settings, in an extended series of panoramic black-and-white photographs called American Cities (1997-present). Exploring the urban environments of Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, and St. Louis, among others, Opie reveals the variety of communities that exist within each city. For example, the Mini-Malls, the group of photographs that initiated American Cities, focuses insistently on the billboards, signs, and architectural elements that identify various ethnic and cultural groups in each eponymous setting. Characteristically, all the series' photographs are emptied of human presence. With their romantic purity, each of the American Cities becomes an iconic, ideal platform for potential community interaction.

Ever seeking to diversify her artistic work, Opie has also turned away from the city, looking toward nature and the itinerant communities that exist upon it. In Icehouses (2001), she turns to the brightly painted structures built by ice fishers on frozen lakes in Minnesota. Viewed from afar, surrounded by an infinite vista of misty snow and atmosphere, the patchy assemblage of icehouses seems diminutive and immaterial. Similarly, the subjects of Surfers (2003) are virtually engulfed in the vast and gloomy shoreline of Malibu, where they watch and wait to be swept up by oncoming waves. Picturing their changing positions over the course of fourteen photographs, Opie presents a rich visual metaphor for the shifting and contingent nature of community itself, as it exists in any environment.

Catherine Opie: American Photographer is organized by Jennifer Blessing, Curator of Photography; with Nat Trotman, Assistant Curator..


(above: Catherine Opie. Tammy Rae & Kaia, Durham, North Carolina, 1998, Chromogenic print, 40 x 50 inches (101.6 x 127 cm), Edition of 5. Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles)


(above: Catherine Opie, Ron Athey/The Sick Man (from Deliverance), 2000, Dye diffusion transfer print (Polaroid), 110 x 41 inches (279.4 x 104.1 cm), Unique Marc and Livia Straus. Family Collection. Photo courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles)


(above: Catherine Opie, Untitled #10 (Surfers), 2003, Chromogenic print, 50 x 40 inches (127.0 x 101.6 cm), Edition of 5. Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles)



Catherine Opie: American Photographer will be accompanied by a major publication, the first to gather all of Opie's various projects in one volume. Each of the artist's series will be reproduced in full color plates made under the artist's supervision, including works beyond those displayed in the exhibition, in order to give the most complete overview of Opie's work ever available. The catalogue will feature a lead essay by Jennifer Blessing, the Guggenheim's Curator of Photography, which will survey Opie's artistic career and its historical contexts, as well as a series of interviews with the artist by Russell Ferguson.

In addition, the museum has commissioned a brief personal reflection by internationally renowned novelist Dorothy Allison, whose work explores concerns similar to Opie's. Finally, the catalogue will also include introductory essays on each of the artist's series by Nat Trotman, Assistant Curator at the Guggenheim, as well as a newly researched, exhaustive exhibition history and bibliography. Together, the exhibition and catalogue will prove to be the primary source for an understanding of Opie's work, providing audiences with a valuable opportunity to examine firsthand the interconnections between the artists' various styles and subjects.


Public Programs / Education

A full roster of educational programs will be presented under the auspices of theSackler Center for Arts Educationduring the run of the exhibition. For updated information contact the Box Office at 212 423 3587 or visit www.guggenheim.org/education.


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