When an artist picks up dangling threads and ties them together, sometimes the result is a jolt as powerful as when electrical wires cross. Sparks fly, heads turn and a dangerous beauty is unleashed.
Catherine Opie is an artist who tied threads together in 1991. In a group of tight, close-up photographic portraits of friends, which she titled “Being and Having,” Opie touched established norms of Conceptual art to a strand of traditional documentary street photography. The startling result promptly blew a fuse.
At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, “Catherine Opie: American Photographer” shows what happened in the aftermath. It opens with a dozen “Being and Having” works, then continues with portrait and landscape series produced during the last 14 years.
Those cross wires too: There are portraits of places and landscapes of faces. Plus, a devastating narrative of quotidian American experience during the terror-soaked 21st century, written in 17 lush color pictures shot “In and Around Home,” interspersed with bleary Polaroids snapped off a TV set. It’s an acute portrayal of life’s joys and sorrows during the nation’s grim recent history.
The net result is the single most riveting solo retrospective I have seen in an American museum this year. “Catherine Opie: American Photographer” accomplishes what few manage: Through smart selection and scrupulous scholarship -- the catalog is just about perfect -- it secures the reputation of an important artist. Like many others, I’ve admired the Los Angeles-based artist’s work for a long time; but this show (through Jan. 7) made me see Opie’s photographs more fully, more deeply and in a provocative variety of new ways.
“Bo,” the self-portrait within “Being and Having,” is emblematic. In a frame-filling close-up, Opie shows herself in the guise of a masculine alter-ego. Her face is soft but her stare is hard, while the netting beneath the false mustache affixed above her upper lip betrays its status as chosen costume.
All 12 portraits place the sitter before a screaming, caution-yellow background, which ramps up a sense of confrontation. And all feature prominent facial hair, including sideburns, beards, goatees and assorted mustaches. Nameplates affixed to the frames -- Papa Bear, Whitey, Chicken, Chief, etc. -- aren’t much help in decoding who is male and who is female beneath the disguises. But the cocky facial hair asserts that the standard by which society measures identity is emphatically male.
And “real men” don’t play dress-up. Costume photography has been a staple from Julia Margaret Cameron in the 1860s to Cindy Sherman in the 1970s. Opie gives the tradition a distinctly queer twist, playing with gay and lesbian stereotypes.
But a strange thing happens. The in-your-face “Bo,” Opie’s self-portrait as a “drag king,” comes to seem at once touching, playful and absurd. All 12 faces become delicate, almost fragile in the poignancy of their predetermined social framing.
As its title implies, “Being and Having” locates the tensions between the identity one is born with and the identity constructed through the intricacies of social interaction -- between nature and culture. It became a template for subsequent portrait series as well as for Opie’s much-discussed interest in what community means.
As a lesbian, she lives simultaneously inside and outside American society. As an artist, she considers the complexity of that otherwise conventional experience.
It leads to marvelous surprises. Opie’s chronicle of L.A. freeways document the Herculean effort behind the creation of modern suburbia, which is what those roadways connect to the older communal model of the city. Horizontal in format, the sleek, sepia-toned photographs recall Francis Frith recording the colossal Egyptian pharaohs’ monuments at Luxor in the 1850s.
She has also made four urban portraits -- L.A., Minneapolis, St. Louis and New York. The latter is focused on Wall Street, the nation’s financial capital. Chilling in its beauty, the large-format series hugs the street, usually eliminating the sky and deftly contradicting the vertical city with a horizontal sweep reminiscent of William Henry Jackson photographing the canyons of Yellowstone. Elaborate, monumental buildings are juxtaposed with ugly urban detritus -- dumpsters, gutter trash, sterile plazas lined with security barricades -- all without a living soul in sight.
Opie works in series, and the exhibition is divided into discreet gallery spaces that each encapsulate a body of work. It’s effective, with one notable exception.
The show is not installed on the Guggenheim’s famous spiral ramp. The galleries are instead dispersed throughout the building on different floors, mostly in the annex, which chops up the experience of her artistic development. Given the boring group show currently in the spiral, one wishes the placement of the exhibitions had been reversed.
The most beautiful room pairs 14 landscape views of ice fishermen and their shacks on snowy frozen lakes in Minnesota with 14 seascape views of early-morning surfers bobbing in the Pacific Ocean along the misty Malibu shore. “Icehouses” (2001) and “Surfers” (2003) are monumental -- more than 4 1/2 feet tall -- and verge on abstraction.
Vast, grayish white expanses are striped across the middle with a horizon line and dotted with figures dwarfed by nature’s void. Both chart the shifting organization of temporary communities of sportsmen who have taken to the water, liquid and frozen. For land creatures this environment Opie possesses a distinct otherness. Play mingles with survival.
Opie, 47, first trained as a street photographer. When she then enrolled at California Institute of the Arts in 1986, she got a full academic education in Conceptual art. Her subsequent fusion of street photography with Conceptual art’s documentary uses of camera work is distinctive.
It has some precedent in the “New Topographics” movement of the 1970s, in which artists such as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Stephen Shore and the German duo of Bernd and Hilla Becher photographed the emerging post-industrial landscape. But Opie’s art not only accepts the potential for aesthetics in camera work, which Conceptual artists simply set aside and the New Topographics artists regarded as a problem to wrestle. Opie just dives right in, embracing art’s history as being potentially as meaningful as the subject being documented.
Perhaps the most extraordinary example is 1993’s “Self-Portrait/Cutting,” which plays with the history of painted portraiture while turning its back on it. Seated before a decorative green background like a royal icon by Holbein, she has a bleeding, childlike, stick-figure drawing of lesbian domestic bliss cut into the flesh of her back. (Artist Judie Bamber wielded the blade.) Art’s exalted tradition of the female nude floats into view.
Opie simultaneously accepts and rejects it. And she remakes it into a powerful document of humanist experience.