There were a number of openings of acclaimed artists in New York City on the evening of November 1st, but the chance to see Catherine Opie’s The Modernist at the Lehman Maupin gallery in Chelsea outshone all of the others.
Opie has earned her place as one of today’s most highly regarded photographers. Over the past three decades, she has created an impressive and varied body of work. Sometimes controversial and provocative – a portrait series of the LGBT communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, self-portraits with cuttings, bleeding words and drawings on her back and chest – she has also done formal and elegant environmental studies of a wide range of subjects, including mini-malls, national parks, LA freeways, exteriors of homes, ice houses and still lives from a dying movie star’s home. Her photographs have roots in art history and reference many time periods, styles and specific artists. A frequent winner of awards and fellowships, she was honored in 2008 with a comprehensive mid-career retrospective of her work by the Guggenheim.
WHO: Catherine Opie
WHAT: The Modernist
WHERE: Lehmann Maupin, 501 West 24th Street, New York
WHEN: November 1, 2018 – January 12, 2019
WHO: Kyle Meyer
WHERE: Yossi Milo Gallery, 245 Tenth Avenue, New York
WHEN: November 1 – December 8, 2018
I have always found her images aesthetically gorgeous and deeply rewarding. Looking at them over the course of time is like entering another world that continues to grow with meaning and associations. Ironic, defiant, sometimes tinted with pathos, always clever.
The night of November 1st was balmy in New York, and I anticipated a big crowd at what was only the second show in the new Lehmann Maupin gallery space on West 24th Street. Designed by Peter Marino, the tri-level space is nearly 9,000 square feet. The Opie show sprawled across two rooms and a downstairs theater space.
The Modernist is a new kind of work for Ms. Opie. The centerpiece is a stop-motion video comprised of 850 black and white photographs. It was inspired by La Jetée, a 1962 film by Chris Marker set in a dystopian future that does not end well. Opie’s reimagining of the art film tells the story of an artist turned arsonist in present-day Los Angeles. In 2017, she told The New Yorker that she got the impetus to create the project in the ’90s, but that it became a priority after the election of our current President, who promised to return America to “its halcyon days before feminism, globalism, and multiculturalism.” At the time she said, “The Modernist is about nostalgia. The story is about a longing for the past that we can’t obtain.”
The protagonist is played by Pig Pen, a.k.a. Stosh Fila, a friend and muse of the artist for many years. The photo storyboard/video follows their day-to-day movements and then the plot and destruction of such ‘60s architectural masterpieces as Sheats-Goldstein Residence and the Chemosphere. After each devastation, Pig Pen creates a collage of the event, layering the multi-media piece with newspaper headlines, assembling the work with tattooed hands and arms that visually merge with the torn and cut artwork: a collage in motion. There is no definitive ending, just the final collage that fills a wall of the arsonist’s home. Is it the art of destruction or the art of revolution? Up to the viewer to decide.
The entrance of the gallery features the collage wall from the film. It is in full color, in contrast to the next gallery, which holds a dozen large B&W prints featured in the video. One wall has three images of a hand holding a blazing match at varied depth of field.
Downstairs on the way to the small theater, there are three “collages of destruction” hanging in light boxes. The Modernist plays on a loop in the pitch-dark theater and is approximately 20 minutes long. When I attended, the audience was subdued and silent, except for the gasps when the first blaze is shown and a loud varoosh blasted out of the speakers.
Despite the work’s implied revolution against “the establishment,” there were a lot of establishment types in attendance. I wondered how many of them owned homes that were decorated with Opie’s artwork and designed by Modernist architects.
Emotionally, I found these images and video incredibly cold. (Ironic for a story about an arsonist.) As an artist myself, I find the sight of art or architecture being destroyed for any reason problematic. It’s as if nothing is sacred anymore – which, perhaps, is the point. I left the show depressed and disappointed.
Leaving the show, I passed the Yossi Milo Gallery, just 300 feet away. It was packed. The show was called Interwoven by Kyle Meyer, I recognized the pieces from pre-show publicity and went in to explore. The front room was wall to wall men. I did not see a single woman, and it was impossible to get near any of the artwork. Forging my way through the crowd, I managed to make it to the back room, where I could actually look at the work.
It was mesmerizing. Any images reproduced from this show cannot compare to experiencing them in person. And the crowd did what people usually do these days when they are overcome by something visually stunning. They took their iPhones out. I can’t judge — I did the same.
As vibrant and colorful as the artwork is, the show is a serious tribute to marginalized members of the LGBT community in southern Africa. In order to survive, these people must keep their identities secret. Meyer photographed these societal outlaws wearing traditional head wraps made out of African textiles of their own choice. He then made large-format digital prints of their portraits and wove them together with the actual fabric. The act of interweaving disguised the subjects for their safety while creating a visually arresting image.
The textures, colors, abstractions and the optical illusions are an indescribable pleasure.
Kyle Meyer earned his MFA in 2016 from Parsons School of Design. This is his first solo show at a major gallery in New York. Since the opening, his work has been shown at Paris Photo and he was featured in an article titled Eight Artists Who Show Where Photography Is Going in The New York Times (November 9, 2018).