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"Altered States of America: Catherine Opie"
2000-08-09 until 2000-09-24
Photographer's Gallery
London, , UK

In her first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom, American photographer Catherine Opie presents a selection of work made over the last seven years. It includes the first showing in Europe of her latest series, Domestic. Opie is a photographer who combines a breathtaking technical virtuosity with subject matter which is alternately transgressive and shocking, classical and composed.

Im kind of a twisted social documentary photographer

Catherine Opie shot to prominence in the mid 1990s with a spectacular sequence of Portraits of her close friends within Los Angeles leather community: transvestites, female-to-male transsexuals, drag queens, body manipulators and others who pioneer the body as a site of sexual and aesthetic experimentation. Opie created a sequence of elegant, gorgeously coloured portraits which give their subjects a regal dignity: they stare back through us instead of being the ones continually stared at. The series includes a number of self-portraits, including Bo, 1994. One of several Opie alter-egos, Bo - a butch, mustachioed, tattooed truck driver - represents a different, darker side of the artist. In other Self Portraits, Opie pushes this sense of psychic and physical self-exploration to an extreme by subjecting her body to a series of painful manipulations. I wanted to push the whole realm of beauty and elegance, she says, but also to make people scared out of their wits.

Catherine Opie always understands the surface of things - whether the extravagantly decorated bodies of her friends, or the facades of buildings in her local community - as expressive of the individual within. Her move in 1995 to seemingly formal, architectural subjects was an unexpected departure, yet entirely consistent with her concerns as an artist. My work is always close to home. Its always about my surroundings and the way I wander through the world, she says, It is about how communities begin to form and how people try to change themselves. The Houses and Landscapes are pictures of houses, and at the same time, portraits of the invisible individuals who occupy them. Shot head-on, these homes in middle-class LA suburbia have been personalised in surprising ways by their inhabitants, while remaining firmly barricaded from the outside world.

This series was followed by Freeways, miniature platinum prints shot on a specially-made 7 x 17 Banquet camera. These soft, silvery pictures of LAs gigantic concrete roads and soaring flyovers are reminiscent of 19th century travellers photographs in the Holy Land or the Valley of the Kings. Photographed at dawn, and emptied of cars and people, they appear like ruins or archeological sites being pictured for the first time. The Mini-malls also impart a sense of history to a cityscape which is famously impermanent. Here Opie documents, with Becher-like objectivity, the prosaic shopping strips which have grown up around LA. Whether in Korean, Japanese, or Mexican neighbourhoods, each Mini-mall expresses the ethnic identity and social life of the community it serves, through the haphazard design of its shop fronts and signage.

Last year, Catherine Opie drove 9,000 miles across the States, stopping to photograph lesbian families and couples en route. Domestic is a photographic love poem to relationships that flourish in the privacy of the home, a celebration of family life played out in a way very different to that imagined in the American Dream. Intimate and lush, the series marks her return to colour portraiture and continues to question what constitutes the ideal home and the ideal family.

Born in 1961, Catherine Opie grew up in Sandusky, Ohio, and has been making photographs since the age of nine. She studied photography at San Francisco Art Institute and at CalArts, and now lives and works in Los Angeles and New York. She has exhibited widely with solo shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 1997 and contributions to important group exhibitions such as Sunshine and Noir (Louisiana Museum; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg), Veronicas Revenge (Deichtorhallen, Hamburg; MCA Sydney) and Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography (Guggenheim Museum, New York).

The exhibition is accompanied by a 60pp hardback book with an interview by Russell Ferguson, Associate Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; an essay by critic and curator Joshua Decter; and an introduction by Kate Bush, Senior Programmer, The Photographers Gallery.

Cathrine Opie,
Justin Bond, 1993

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