Seminal artist Catherine Opie is unveiling a new series in her solo show at Regen Projects, celebrating her 20-year collaboration with the L.A. gallery. The new photos are a departure from the aggressively political imagery of her past work. Here, the portraits and landscapes invite the viewer on an introspective journey into the artist’s current state of mind. Opie pulls from art history, notably Renaissance painter Hans Holbein and Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, to create a series of contemporary photographs that address the theme of humanity and our cognitive relationship to memory and history. ARTINFO’s Yasmine Mohseni visited the exhibition with the artist, who offered insight into a new body of work that is at once quiet and powerful.
This show seems to be both a progression and a departure for you.
There’s obviously a conversation in relationship to earlier portraits, and just the fact that I really love making portraits. Portraits have never been far from my practice. But this show is a more internal body of work; it’s about my own mental place in relationship to how I want to form the portraits, which lean more to allegory. For years, I’ve been looking at communities in relationship to the politics of representation. And so the departure here is really the void of politics to a certain extent, it’s not necessarily about a representation but more about an internal space and about how we look at work from a cognitive level in relationship to the sublime. I’ve always loved historical paintings — they’ve informed how I think about portraiture and trying to make work out of an imagined space or even my imagination as a 51-year-old woman.
How do the abstract landscape photographs come into play in this exhibition?
Abstraction is incredibly powerful in photography at the moment. But mine is a lens-based abstraction versus a Photoshop-based abstraction. All the landscapes are untitled but they’re all [taken] outside or close to national parks. We say ‘look, there’s the Grand Canyon’ but all we do is take a picture with an iPhone and put it on our Facebook page. Can we go to national parks anymore and have these grand moments with nature? How do you reimagine the landscape, and how do you make a landscape one that we know but that it is also imaginary? So, I’m really asking people to do a little more work with these photos, [posing questions like] what is memory? What is your cognitive relationship to nature? What is nature to humanity? It’s important that the landscapes are integrated in the show; I didn’t want to piece everything out. You need pauses in between really intense portraits; a moment to escape the face and the figure.
Why have the exhibition focus on the vulnerability of the internal life?
I wanted the exhibition to match the space that I’m in. I’m very stable in my life right now and I feel like I have a lot providing me incredible stability: my relationship, my son, our family, my daughter. I’m just in this place that I was willing to dig a little bit deeper on an emotional level without it being overtly emotive or overly poetic. How do you balance all that in art? I think it’s a really hard thing to do. Those were the questions I was asking myself in relationship to making the body of work. What does it mean to be middle-aged and have had this really amazing trajectory? I’m thinking about my body and how my body has been changing. The blood [prevalent in the show] is in reference to the fact that I don’t bleed anymore. There’s also a vulnerability to the body: you go from young to middle-aged to older in the show. I’ve always been interested in ideas of humanity and what is human, I’m trying to touch on that in a little bit of a different way with this body of work.
What is your relationship to the subjects in these portraits?
They’re friends, they’re always friends, or friends of friends. Taca is the partner of Rodney Hill, who’s the father of my child. Jonathan Franzen is a writer that I’ve always read and I love that the book [in front of him] is open as if this could be a potential story, but it’s not a linear narrative. There are the [Mulleavy] sisters with Laura telling Kate a secret – like a secret language - and they’re embroidering a blood drip. Blood is referenced throughout this body of work. Like with Dave, the reason why he’s bleeding – and a lot of people have unfortunately read it as castration – it’s really because he’s my trainer and he’s been working me out for three years and it’s the closest relationship I’ve ever had with a man. During that time period I stopped bleeding so he begins to bleed for me. So, it is coming out of this dream state but without it being a coherent dream state.
This is a large show with a lot of works, how did you approach the install?
I always install everything in my studio with foam core models and I figure out how I want the work positioned. I’ve always worked with photographs as installation. It’s a definite installation; I wanted the work to flow in this way. It’s also very much about its materiality: the framing, the scale of the work and not using plexi, so the print is as vulnerable as the subjects are.
Both the materiality and subject matter demand an active participation from the viewer. Is that something you put a lot of thought into?
Yes. Art needs to go more to that place where you can’t experience this exhibition or the images just in print, it’s about the physicality of how they are in the space. You may be able to see them on the Internet but you can’t experience them in the same way as what happens with the print in the frame. Scale is really important in terms bringing people in and stepping back and what the sight lines do. You have these two grooves in the ceiling that work really well with the verticals. The ovals were a way to make another shape, but it’s also like an oversized cameo. It’s like miniature portraits by Holbein, but these aren’t miniature and you can’t wear them. You’re used to seeing them under a glass vitrine but here you’re faced with a contemporary oval, they have this presence and physicality.
There's a series of smaller works that seem to stand apart from the rest. What is their significance?
These are very different, almost like a bizarre key to the puzzle. You have the lips being sewn but the lovers end up kissing, it’s all about the blood mingling. And there’s just my arm, it’s the self-portrait in the show: my arm going into the void. For me it’s like I’m pulling out of the darkness. And the bonsai tree: My partner Julie is an amazing gardener, and she gave me this bonsai tree for my birthday. It keeps dying and coming back to life so that’s a photo of my little bonsai tree coming back to life again, after I thought I killed it. So, this is the key – well, I call it a key but it really isn’t a key, I just don’t know how else to describe it – to the internal mental space of this exhibition in a certain way, that is purely a dream state.
You refer to art history and narratives such as Adam and Eve without actually spelling it out for the viewer. As a result, the show has a nuanced subtlety to it. What was your thought process here?
Well, we all know those stories. They’re innate to us in terms of readers of art, books and culture, we all try to fit it very tightly in a nice little wrapped-up perfect package. I’m trying to use the form to connote that to a certain extent but also open it up — I want an openness in terms of what it is to view these days. How do we view? Where do we go in our minds? It’s probably the most cognitive exhibition I’ve ever tried to do. This one is asking real questions about our relationship to our brain, memory, and history.
"Catherine Opie," is on view at Regen Projects, 6750 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, February 23-March 29, 2013