Since the time Catherine Opie asked for and received a camera for her 9th birthday, she photographed what she sees – and seeks. As his gallery, Lehmann Maupin, explains on its website, Opie’s photography examines “the ideals and norms surrounding the culturally constructed American dream and American identity.” His views on identity were inclusive long before it became a buzzword.
Now 60, the Ohio-born, Los Angeles-based artist has earned an international reputation for her sharp observations. Some might know her best for her portraits, with subjects as divergent as gay, lesbian, and transgender; high school football players; and late Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor. And then there are Opie’s self-portraits, in which she appears both deeply vulnerable and assertive.
But the photographer also trained her viewfinder on larger subjects: neighborhoods, cityscapes, highways and landscapes across the country. Vermont gallery-goers have a rare opportunity to sample the latter in person at the flow in Stowe – specifically, 11 large-scale images from Opie’s “Swamps” and “Yosemite” series.
Visitors will approach this exhibition at superficial or deeper levels, each likely to generate questions. Opie’s photographs invite viewers to look closely, not to find clues to a hidden agenda, but to think for themselves: what are we looking at here? There are no wrong answers.
On the surface, we watch scenes in Okefenokee Swamp, a 438,000-acre wetland in Georgia, and Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park in California.
Two of the swamp images are so dark and closed in that they induce claustrophobia, drawing the eye to lush detail of lichen, moss and aquatic mystery. It’s natural to wonder, with some trepidation, what creatures lurk here.
One such beast is prominently featured in “Untitled #2 (Swamps)”: an alligator. Seeming equal parts lethargic and menacing, the dinosaur remnant reptile is half-submerged. The shallow water, dotted with water lilies, reflects the scrubby vegetation that surrounds it.
Opie uses reflection as a compositional device in “Untitled #7 (Swamps)”. From her vantage point on a body of water, she captures an image that could look almost the same upside down – the calm water perfectly mirrors the treeline and sky.
Water is a powerful force in Opie’s “Yosemite Falls” photos; one can imagine the roar as it falls from a height of 2,425 feet. The words “national park” evoke the magnificent mountain panoramas of the American West. But Opie isn’t going for big. She has cropped these images tightly, eliminating sky and ground, and focusing our attention on this whitish crevice in the rock face.
Four of the Current’s photos also go out of focus – literally. Three are so myopically blurred that they become abstractions, whispers of content. In the fourth, “Untitled #6 (Yosemite Valley)”, Opie allows a trace of blue sky to define the top of the waterfall. Two trees in the foreground give the image a vague sense of depth.
Why are these images blurry? To ask this is to contemplate the meaning of vagueness. Does Opie imply a landscape in danger of disappearing? Do these marshes and mountains, with their respective water resources, have anything in common?
Yes and yes. As the Current gallery guide recounts, Opie’s landscapes “are both beautiful documentation and a quiet plea for environmental conservation.”
The Okefenokee is a recreation destination and a wildlife refuge – seemingly opposing purposes. Worse, according to scientific reports, the climate crisis could lead to drought in the region, threatening the plant and animal ecosystem of the wetland. And in California, warming temperatures and drought have already exacerbated wildfires and the influx of non-native insects.
The Current gallery guide also alludes to the parallels between natural and political landscapes in Opie’s work: “His series of marshes in particular evoke[s] not just the dangers of climate change, but the precarious state of our country, as calls to ‘drain the swamp’ erode the fundamental structures of democracy.”
Viewers are unlikely to make this conceptual leap; Opie’s exposition is by no means didactic. Yet his images of iconic American landscapes serve as a reminder that these unique treasures can be lost. Executive Director and Exhibitions Director Rachel Moore took advantage of the theme to present climate-related programming, including a panel discussion on February 17 titled “The Earth We Live In: Responsibility, Care, Fragility and Climatology.”
For this viewer, Opie’s photographs inspired a deeper engagement with the artist herself – virtually, that is. Lehmann Maupin’s website offers a wealth of biographical information and images of his considerable body of work. Best of all are Opie’s video commentary on her life, her work, and how she embraces the world.