WEB REVIEW BY PHOEBE TAM
In May this year, Catherine Opie launched her first solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin’s Hong Kong space. Compared to the subversive portraits exploring American identities and communities that the Los Angeles-based photographer is generally known for, “So Long As They Are Wild” may appear to be surprisingly apolitical. But two-and-a-half decades after Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993)—featuring a childlike picture of two women holding hands in front of a house, crudely carved into Opie’s back—poignantly articulating the pain of living in America at the time as a lesbian woman, she is now married to her long-term partner Julie Burleigh, with children and grandchildren of their own. The artist has more than earned the right to depart from her radical social commentary work.
The press release from the exhibition mentions that the images in this series are inspired by the late American photographer Ansel Adams. However, while Adams’s famed Yosemite landscapes are sharp, high contrast, black-and-white, and with crowded compositions that hammer in nature’s grandeur, Opie uses simple, idiosyncratic compositions that are less majestic and far more meditative. The landscapes with singular focus on a waterfall, a tree, or the huge expanse of cobalt blue in the sky are interspersed with blurred, untitled photos of Yosemite Valley, as if blinking and taking a deep breath before moving onto her next shot. Some shots may still bear echoes of Adams; as in his Mirror Lake, Morning, Yosemite National Park (1928), the reflection in the lake in Opie’s Untitled #2 (Yosemite Valley) (2015) parts the image neatly in half. But her intentional blurring shifts the focus from details to colors and the unassuming beauty of symmetry. Although Opie is similarly interested in depicting waterfalls, hers tend to be captured at a distance, or flipped upside down. Adams’s waterfalls are torrents, pouring over rocks in a way that you can almost hear their booming roar. In Rainbow Falls (2015), without closer inspection, you would hardly notice the compositional inversion. In the time that it takes for the viewer to take note of the change and try to visualize water flowing upwards, all sounds are muted, all movements slowed to a pause. It is no longer just about Yosemite in all its splendor, but more so the range of thoughts and emotions that observing nature can elicit. Opie’s version of the American wilderness is not remotely overbearing in its magnificence, but rather quiet in a way that speaks of vulnerability.
The lack of human presence in this series may be less conspicuous than in her photography of urban landscapes. Nevertheless, this entails a lack of narrative for the viewer to latch onto and empathise with. The documentary photography that brought her to prominence in the art world often features extremely close, confrontational shots that focus solely on the person being photographed through the negation of a backdrop. Meanwhile, an emptying out of human presence is a recurring motif in her landscape photography. In a 2001 interview with Art Journal, Opie points out, “The emptiness is about loss. It’s about nostalgia . . . trying to capture, document people and places before they disappear.” In the context of nature, the emptiness conveys a longing for a time when these landscapes were untouched by mankind.
Adams spent his career in a tug of war between wanting to share the beauty of Yosemite and to preserve it against the rise in tourism. Opie is not as shy in addressing the fragility of nature, in portraying its devastation that Adams so feared. Accompanying her photography in the show is her first series of sculptures. She draws a connection between the use of fire in creating the ceramic tree stumps, and the element as “both a destructive and regenerative force” in nature. In the sculptures’ poor attempt at mimicking real trees, they show how impossible it would be for us to replace the parts of nature that we are destroying.
Like the Romantic painters before her, Opie expresses a desire to return to nature for quiet contemplation. She does not ask for much; she would probably photograph anything “so long as they are wild.” While pointing at the beauty of these sights, she makes a subtle plea for environmental preservation: if society goes on operating in such an unsustainable manner, all of this is what we are poised to lose. Though the subject matter is more conventional than in some of her early works, the message that this exhibition leaves us with is one that is equally important.
Phoebe Tam is an editorial intern ofArtAsiaPacific.
Catherine Opie’s “So Long As They Are Wild” is on view at Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong, until July 7, 2018.
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