Catherine Opie: Portraits and Landscapes / Reviewed by Alastair Levy / 16.10.17
More than twenty years have passed since Catherine Opie produced the work for which she is still perhaps best known. In those portraits of friends from the West Coast LGBT community, she created a raw and powerful series of images documenting aspects of gender and sexuality which were absent from mainstream media. The body was a site for experimentation, for decoration and even damage. Identity was fluid and there was an urgency, both political and social. Initially, the work currently showing at Thomas Dane Gallery in London seems very different, and after so much time that might be unsurprising.
Amongst this installation of framed pigment prints are thirteen portraits accompanied by a single out of focus landscape. Each subject is immersed in a deep black background which itself is extended by heavy black frames. Unlike the Portraits series from the mid-’90s which was shot against bold colour backdrops, the images here are more subtle and employ a highly restrained palette. Details of clothing or skin are picked out by carefully controlled studio lighting resulting in a quietness which envelops the viewer over time. The sitters are often caught at a moment of apparent daydream, their gaze fractionally missing that returned by the lens. There is a slowing down and a stillness which aligns with the work of Alec Soth and, much earlier, Julia Margaret Cameron; a sense that the person in front of the camera has been there for so long that they have almost forgotten that they are being photographed.
And so to the sitters themselves: David, Gillian, Isaac… The omission of surnames suggests a familiarity between artist and subject and indeed many of these people are Opie’s friends. The fact that they are prominent artists (Hockney, Wearing and Julien) is at first a slight distraction from reading these images as you might if they were unknown. After a while this becomes less significant and the realisation comes that this work is simply a reflection of Opie’s life today in much the same way as those early portraits made in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The people here are older and appear more affluent, as might be expected, but this is the circle of which the artist is now a part. In this respect, the work is just as honest and direct as that earlier series.
Closest to the gallery’s large glass frontage, which looks out onto Duke Street, a self-portrait (Cathy (London), 2017) depicts Opie sat in a chair, her face turned almost to profile. It seems as if she might be illuminated by the light coming in from outside the space. This piece is set slightly apart from the others on the same wall, perhaps an act of humility on the part of the artist. It would be understandable if she felt uncomfortable placing herself amongst this group of luminaries, regardless of her own status and success. On her right arm, tattoos which are recognisable from early self-portraits create a link with the past. These symbols of continuity and permanence paradoxically articulate all the change that has occurred over the years since their inscription. They are a reminder that, at its core, this work is autobiography; it is about time, experience and bonds.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Alastair Levy
Catherine Opie: Portraits and Landscapes continues at Thomas Dane Gallery, 3 Duke Street, London, until 18th November 2017
3 Duke Street, St James, London SW1Y