Sunday, October 19, 2008

Review: Holzer & Opie

My friend JM and I went to the Guggenheim on Friday night to see the Jenny Holzer installation and the Catherine Opie exhibition. JM is a big fan of Holzer's work, and we were both looking forward to these shows. The installation is a projection of phrases by Holzer onto the facade of the newly refurbished spiral building by Frank Lloyd Wright. You should definitely take a look at their website for the installation, as it has a video that beautifully demonstrates what the projection is like. The museum is only showing the installation on Friday nights for their "pay what you wish" entry. The image here was taken by me using my mobile phone (which surprisingly took a good picture). If you can't make out the words, the message says: "RESPECT THEIR RIGHT TO WHISPER, LAUGH, AND LAPSE INTO HAPPY SILENCE." Holzer (b. 1950) is an American Conceptual artist. Her work since the 1970s has been based on truisms, phrases or ideas so self-evident that they almost don't bear repeating. But she does repeat them, over and over, and has them appear on everything from cement benches to building walls. What is interesting about truisms is that the more they are repeated, the more they call into question what they declare to be true, so her phrases make you pause and contemplate the truth behind the message. The medium in which she works is important as well, because it changes how one perceives the message. A large-scale digital projection such as this one conjures up a cinematic experience, a Star Wars-like effect, whereby enormous words hovering over you force you into accepting their message. In contrast, the same words on a cement bench make the message more meditative. The installation was fun to gaze at for a while as her phrases rotated the whole time. Here's another one of the projected messages: "I DON'T REQUIRE CHANGES FROM THE SURF, NOW DILIGENT, NOW SLUGGISH, OBEYING NOT ME." The installation runs until December 31st. To visit links to other works by Holzer, go to Artcyclopedia's Jenny Holzer page.

Catherine Opie (b. 1961) is an American photographer who made a name for herself in the mid-1990s with her transgressive series Portraits (1993-1997). These works, on display here as part of this mid-career retrospective, are a series of head-and-shoulder or full-length-body portraits of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and straight people, all of whom are part of the Goth scene, the leather & bondage scene, the S&M scene, and so on: they are the ├╝ber-alternative in alternative lifestyles. According to curator Jennifer Blessing on the wall text for the show, these studio portraits were shot "with the dignity historically accorded to members of a royal court." I can see where she's going with this. All of the works are arranged like a gallery of traditional paintings, and all of the works are shot vividly with intense background colors that showcase their subjects. But I think that type of assessment is a politically correct way of making the subject matter palatable to mainstream audiences. For me, the figures are arranged like a freak show, images you would see from some early circus, such as the bearded lady and the fire-eating man. Instead, here you have a drag king named Bo with a fake mustache and butch flannel shirt, and Vaginal Davis wearing green curly-haired clown wigs strategically placed on her nude body. But it's important to recognize that this freak show is what makes the portraits so beautiful. Their transgression is their beauty. They are a type of royal court, but one very different from what mainstream America usually knows or sees. Their individuality is their beauty.

There are other works in the show worth mentioning, namely Opie's Self-Portrait/Pervert (1994), which has her sitting before a luxurious black-and-gold tapestry and wearing a leather mask, pins in her arms, bare-breasted, the word Pervert bleeding, carved in cursive penmanship, onto her chest. This contrasts with Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004), which has her bare-breasted, now staring down at the innocent face of the baby that suckles at her breast, the word Pervert now a scar on her chest, the red-and-gold tapestry behind her echoing Madonna and Child imagery from Renaissance paintings. I love figurative art, so I find these works to be some of her most riveting. However, she has done other types of work that are also on exhibit here, such as a series of images of freeways and storefronts. Her series Icehouses and Surfers border on abstraction and made me think of the atmospheric photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto and an inverted version of zip-style painting akin to Barnett Newman or Jo Baer. Definitely take a look at the Guggenheim's website for the exhibition, which has a short video with Opie talking about some of her work. The exhibition runs until January 7th. More links to images of her work are available on Artcyclopedia's Catherine Opie page.

My friend KB told me afterwards that much of Opie's work, in whatever representation, is about communities, which does make a lot of sense. But as my friend JM said to me, what strikes him about so many photographers since the late 1980s is how they got caught up in the battle over censorship and funding by government bodies. Classic examples are Andres Serrano, Sally Mann, and of course Robert Mapplethorpe. These shocking works became their token oeuvre, and everything afterwards tends to lack the same heightened level of aesthetic experience. I can see what he means by this. Opie's figurative work is powerful and speaks to the mid-1990s alternative lifestyle experience in Clinton America. The rest of it, alas, doesn't seem to speak to me in the same way. Ultimately, I believe it is the portraiture for which Opie will be best remembered in art history, but only time will tell.

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