Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie’s Houses (1995-1996), just like the many series of portraits for which she is perhaps best known, presents facades in full disclosure, isolating the subject and cropping out any extraneous detail, while making you work to glimpse the interiority.

Documenting the imposing grandeur and elegance of the homes from the sidewalks of exclusive neighborhoods is an extension of Opie’s practice in representing the figure, both concentrating on the details of the individual as much as giving some context of the community in which they take part, and the spaces that they choose to inhabit. Not just residential buildings, but homes.

A number of her successions and influences—members of her own butch lesbian bondage circle (Being and Having; Portraits); highways crisscrossing Los Angeles County (Freeways), emptied at Sunday sunrises; the powdery intimacies of Elizabeth Taylor’s vanity, closets, Oscars, and diamonds (700 Nimes Road)—have led obliquely to her first film, The Modernist, a twenty-two-minute-long moving-image work that sifts through some eight hundred black-and-white photographs in the style of Chris Marker’s 1962 La Jetée. However, while La Jetée gave voice to a mood of eerie dislocation and impending yet erratic collapse, Opie’s precise, orderly narrative is not only site-specific but site-contingent. Stosh, or Pig Pen, as he is more commonly referred to in her work (she has been photographing him for decades now) is an antihero with arsonist tendencies. He uses a midcentury modern living room—complete with tasteful coffee table books on Los Angeles design history and Case Study Houses and sleek, vaguely Scandinavian furnishings—as his headquarters to lay out in meticulous detail how he has burned down what he cannot have, namely, architectural gems of the Hollywood Hills. A house is designed for a family. Families can take form in any combination of arrangements, as the artist has shown in her classifications: those taken in the company of her S&M rituals; her portraits of marginalized members of her own circles, often sporting tattoos and piercings, whose dignified statures and straightforward postures before bright, simple backgrounds are modeled after those painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in the sixteenth century, Opie essentially producing Renaissance-style depictions of her own personal royal family; her portfolio dedicated to the image and performance work of her friend and fellow artist Ron Athey. Eventually, her own traditional family model is on display over the course of several years, tracking her son from a nursing baby to a serene adolescent. He finds himself in John Lautner’s iconic 1960 Chemosphere house, incidentally the real-life Los Angeles home of German publisher Benedikt Taschen, with a can of gasoline in his hands. Delicately pouring out a ring of the fuel near the building’s octagonal perimeter, the flames compete with the vantage point’s stunning views overlooking the city, intersecting with the startling single note—the film’s only sound—of a struck match on fire. Lautner’s 1963 Sheats-Goldstein house, with its geometric rigor and concrete shadow play, meets the same fate. Pig Pen takes in the home’s breathtaking view at its edge, exhales and hunches over momentarily, and turns around to spark the flame that will consume the monument.

Back at home, hunched over a coffee table and balancing a smoldering, rough cigarette, he methodically cuts out and collages headlines from the Los Angeles Times front-page reporting of his crimes, satisfied with both his execution and newfound infamy. Coincidentally, both residences have been used as villain’s lairs in big-budget movies. Imagining himself as in control of these charged, personal, yet highly publicized spaces, Pig Pen seems to rationalize his covetous, destructive episodes with modernism’s own failures to the very society that held it up as the polished solution to contemporary socioeconomic anxieties. Generations later, the era’s trappings are as fetishized as ever, yet now we know that the stylish commitments to attainable home construction and ownership and accessible high design would ultimately fall short in addressing the generation’s and the city’s escalating housing crisis and divisive disparities. Modernism’s aftermath, a perpetually revitalized nostalgia for itself, continuously aids in masking its shortcomings. Finally animated after years of celluloid stillness, Pig Pen’s stop-motion gestures betray his intentions by animating his soft ache for what is still out of reach, and out of the frame: the security that comes with claiming a corner of the world all to oneself.


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