Catherine Opie’s Intimate Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES — A medicine cabinet can say a lot about people: what they value, how they want to present themselves, and how they care for their spaces and physical bodies. In her latest photography show, harmony is fraught at Regen Projects, Catherine Opie puts her medicine cabinet — among other personal images — on display, revealing to visitors what makes the artist who she is. On the top shelf is a fake mustache and glue, a reminder of her alter ego from the 1991 series Being and Having. Below that, Vagisil leans next to a dildo and lube, Preparation-H sits next to floss and a clay face mask, and a tampon is tucked behind it all. It’s queer identity in its most poignant and raw form, proudly on view. 

Across over 60 photographs that have never been shown publicly, Opie skillfully juxtaposes quiet personal moments with images of LA’s infrastructure and landscape: the freeways, and construction; interior spaces of art studios; queer bars and gay rodeos; and the natural environment of sunlight glimmering through trees. Each work is a thread in Opie’s narrative, intricately weaving together the tapestry of her life in the city that has been her home for three decades. Along the way, she’s navigated relationships, parenthood, and a teaching career at UCLA, and established herself as a renowned photographer.  

Each image tells its own story of Opie’s Los Angeles. In one photograph, we see clouds of black smoke on a residential street with palm trees in the distance, a documentation of the 1992 LA uprising as seen from a rooftop. Another shows a queer couple in black leather and spikes in an intimate embrace, the Hollywood sign looming in the background. To the artist, these subjects seen in offhand and private moments are intertwined with the city that nurtures them. 

These works are documents that bear witness, but they also highlight the connection between our public and private lives. Take the photograph “USC Rape Protest” (2021/2024). In 2021, University of Southern California students protested the Sigma Nu fraternity following reports of sexual assault and drugging. Opie’s photograph captures the students’ rage and pain. Hundreds of pieces of paper cover the Sigma Nu house. Names and expletives are tagged on and around the building of alleged rapists, and a candle vigil marks the center of the composition. A woman standing in front of the building and reading the names underscores the gravitas of the photograph. “Surfer Landscape” (2003/2024) transports viewers to another world, both physically and emotionally, where surfers in the distance wait to catch a wave. 

With “Oliver/Thanksgiving, 2004” (2004/2024) we find ourselves in a more personal interior: Opie’s son, a boy no older than four, stands on a chair, hands on a raw, pink Thanksgiving turkey. Alongside the vistas of the city and iconic imagery, it’s a warm reminder of all the little moments that create a life.

Catherine Opie: harmony is fraught continues at Regen Projects (6750 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, Los Angeles) through March 3. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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