Artist: Catherine Opie

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Pig Pen spectacle modernist building Los Angeles Catherine Opie photography marginalized outsider pyromania arson arsonist black-and-white photography still shot photo-roman Art world gallery collage newsfeed newspaper clippings montage mad man dystopia implosion Sheats-Goldstein residence Chemosphere magnum opus

Catherine Opie: ​The Modernist:​ Installation view and detail

Catherine Opie

The Modernist​ at Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York through January 12, 2019

To view Catherine Opie’s new film, a 21:44 minute photo-roman, at the Lehmann Maupin gallery, is disturbingly hypnotic. The film, her first, is comprised of 852 black-and-white well-knit photographs that follow a fictional character on an arsonist spree across Los Angeles. He targets the city’s most iconic modernists buildings, douses them and documents his handiwork via collage.

Lehmann Maupin presents The Modernist, a fascinating series of the artists’ new photographs and film. The photo-roman, is inspired by La Jetée, a revolutionary 1962 film by visionary Chris Marker. La Jetée weaves together memory, states of being, destruction, dystopia, and a post cataclysmic Paris through a series of arresting black and white photographs and third person narrative. Marker’s film is an art historical reference for Opie’s observation “on the volatility and disjoint in present day America.”. The medium, a perfect vehicle, weaves in the disparate elements of Opie’s signature style:

“The protagonist, played by Opie’s friend and frequent subject, the San Francisco-based artist Pig Pen, a.k.a. Stosh Fila, encompasses the embattled, marginalized body that has been ostensibly under attack by the ominous mantra, “Make America great again.” In The Modernist, Opie’s character retaliates, torching buildings like John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein Residence (1961-63) and Chemosphere (1960), sneaking in and stealthily dousing the idealized utopian structures in gasoline. Ultimately, this act of arson is a grandiose ploy for the character’s magnum opus, a grisly collage of the news clippings covering the fires, the artist’s masterful insertion of self into the 24-hour news cycle that craves spectacle.” – Statement, Lehmann Maupin Gallery

Indeed, the resulting collage, an amalgam of carefully crafted photos and news clips, is marred by psychic mark-making. The images, clean and spare, suffer the violence of slashes. Fiery embers glow and grey “clouds” waft above. Texts jump out: “Pain: The Worst Kind”, “Fires Charred and Chilling Landscape”, “The Brave New World”, “Satisfaction”, and “Take a Look”. Beautiful in execution and large in scale, the mural reveals the hand of an individual quietly imploding.

The film is disquieting in its silence. With the exception of one cataclysmic explosion, the documentary runs entirely without sound. We see Pig Pen, on the one hand, surreptitiously dousing buildings and on the other, admiring beauty. In a poignant moment, he interrupts his pyromaniac spree to pause and purchase a bouquet of flowers. The film zooms in. It is not a coincidence that Ms. Opie photographs Pig Pen inspecting himself in a mirror. Is there introspection? Is there humanity?

Catherine Opie: The Modernist Installation view


Catherine Opie: The Modernist Installation view

Ms. Opie has always believed in the power of photography to change our way of seeing the world and The Modernist is a winning confirmation of that. Installation view

Ms. Opie has always believed in the power of photography to change our way of seeing the world and The Modernist is a winning confirmation of that.


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