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Painting is a theme that runs through Opie's third show, a series of brand-new works at Regen Projects. The most striking pieces are portraits of friends and family — "people I like to look at," she says — featuring some L.A. luminaries like Rodarte fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, and Diana Nyad, the journalist and long-distance swimmer. With dramatic lighting, streaks of bright red blood and stark black backgrounds, the photographs evoke classical 17th-century portraiture. "Utilizing techniques of chiaroscuro, color and formal composition, the new portraits are highly reminiscent of old-master paintings," says Jennifer Loh, director of Regen Projects. "Caravaggio immediately comes to mind." According to Opie, this is her way of exploring her new identity — what it means to be 51, pondering her menopausal body.
Alternating between these works are untitled landscapes, which represent a departure for Opie. Compared to the portraits, which here are so razor-sharp you feel you might be able to reach out and tap a Mulleavy sister on the shoulder, these landscapes are dreamlike and out-of-focus. "Cathy has never before utilized abstraction in her photographs," says Loh, who notes that the works are made from racking the focus (changing the focus in the middle of the shot) on the camera, without any digital manipulation. "The new landscapes float in abstraction and are reduced to elementary blurred light drawings."
Here, Opie's location and subject is a mystery — and that's how she wants to keep it. "With all of us going to national parks like the Grand Canyon and posting it on Facebook — 'I'm in the Grand Canyon!' — how do we take notice of the sublime anymore?" she asks. She hopes that viewers will create their own relationships with the landscapes. "People make their own assumptions," she says. "People look at one of them and think it's a volcano." (It's not a volcano.)
While these new works at Regen aren't specifically about Los Angeles, they do reflect a theme often present in her work — making a connection with something that makes us uncomfortable. "A lot of these questions have come out in my own history of dealing with homophobia," she says. "Why do we have these irrational ideas about 'the other'?"
Through the diverse facets of Los Angeles that she chooses to document, Opie not only transforms the way we see the city, she asks us to define — or maybe redefine — our role within it.
It's notable that one piece in this unofficial regionwide Opie exhibition can be found outside gallery walls, on a billboard at the intersection of Highland and Santa Monica, just above a Walgreens. A rather surreal image — a flame bursting from liquid — is juxtaposed with the ordinariness of the actual surrounding strip malls and sprawl that Opie has dutifully documented for the last quarter century.
Like all her photographs, it's beautiful, haunting and gloriously weird. And it's impossible to stop thinking about. We could all use a little Catherine Opie on our commutes, pleasantly jarring us out of our comfort zones.
"Catherine Opie: In & Around L.A." at WuHo Gallery runs through March 24 (architecture.woodbury.edu/wuho), as does "Twelve Miles to the Horizon" at the Long Beach Museum of Art (lbma.org). Opie's show at Regen Projects runs through March 29 (regenprojects.com).