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House Proud

When speaking with photographer Catherine Opie about her upcoming Guggenheim show, we were interrupted; she explained that she was getting her house appraised for painting. We were originally thinking chocolate-brown with robins-egg blue trim, but then we remembered that we lived in Southern California, so we thought wed invert it, said Opie, referring to the way dark paint holds the heat. Domestic details are important to Opie, who has focused her work on the microcosm of home, while also zooming out to document larger communities, which she explores in photographs in a retrospective exhibit at the Guggenheim. The holistic title Catherine Opie: American Photographer is apt because her landscape and architectural photographs imbue Americas built environment with a pathos characteristic of her well-known portraits of various American subcultures, children, and her own friends and family. In her mini-mall photos, rendered from across a Los Angeles street, the two-story subjects arent just the easily ignored conglomerations of consumer culture, but giant faces built up over time with experience, character, and desire. Are these iconic L.A.? I dont know. What is iconic, anyway? asks Opie. Whether with head-on shots of cabaret impresario Justin Bond or with high-angle shots of expansive highway interchanges or wet-suited California surfers or crystalline city skylines at night or her self-portraits as her masculine alter ego Bo, Opie examines what we build around ourselves for ourselves. Opies personal desire for a long-term relationship pushed her to travel thousands of miles around America to document partnered lesbians in their homes for a series called Domestic. A stronger manifesto of this desire is seen in her 1993 Self-Portrait/Cutting, where the childish scrawl of a house, two stick figures of women holding hands, and passing clouds and gulls has been literally etched into the expanse of Opies naked back. Ones initial shock at her mutilation is somewhat neutralized in the prosaic nature of the scene. With her portraits and built environments, Opie creates humane compositions that quietly ask the viewer to question archetypes of varying scales. I never read my photographs as humiliating; I see them as more about how we perceive ideas of democracy, she says. Opies son Oliver can be seen employing this philosophy. In her photograph Oliver in a Tutu the cherub-faced child smiles in a college sports shirt and a bright pink tutu -- an eradication (or embracing) of differences in gender roles. Life still goes on in the background: The sun is at afternoons level, the laundry is coming out to be folded, and eaves that are to be painted chocolate-brown years later frame the day. Catherine Opie: American Photographer runs from September 26, 2008January 7, 2009, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; Guggenheim.orgSend a letter to the editor about this article.
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