Exhibit of the week: Catherine Opie: Empty and Full

Half of Opie's show at Boston's ICA consists of shots of street gatherings; the other half celebrates her continuing obsession with abstract water photos.

Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

Through Sept. 5

Look who’s got her mojo back, said Greg Cook in the Boston Phoenix. Catherine Opie, who rocked the art world in the ’90s with “blunt lesbian self-portraits” and “fierce political broadsides,” spent the aughts snapping sugary domestic scenes and seascapes. By the time New York City’s Guggenheim mounted a retrospective, in 2008, it looked as if the feisty photographer had lost her edge. False alarm: Half of Opie’s new ICA show finds her back in the streets, creating unblinking group portraits of the various characters who turn up at large outdoor gatherings—inaugurations, Tea Party rallies, gay-rights marches. “She doesn’t glorify or demonize,” but simply “lets the messiness of the events show.” The balance of the exhibit, in contrast, celebrates Opie’s continuing obsession with abstract water photos. Yawn. I suppose “they could be said to mull the existential vastness of the sea,” or some such, but to me they’re just bland.

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It must be a matter of taste, said Mark Feeney in The Boston Globe. From where I sit, the water pictures are Opie’s crowning achievement: “Nothing quite brings out her gift for sumptuous clarity as does a certain odorless, colorless compound.” Water is the star of Opie’s series “Twelve Miles to the Horizon,” a chronicle of her 11-day voyage on a container ship from South Korea to California, which she marked by snapping the sunrise and sunset each day. In the first image, of the port of Busan, Opie establishes “a progression of tonalities in the key of blue: light blue sky, grayish-blue granite, the cornflower blue of the containers.” Then she’s off, capturing variations on that color scheme in dozens of “profoundly beautiful” shots.

If you look closely, said Susan Saccoccia in the Boston Bay State Banner, you might notice that the two series share an important commonality: Opie’s treatment of the horizon. In the water series, she uses the horizon as an anchoring point, the way an abstract painter might use the “repetitive formality of a grid.” In the gatherings series, the immovable horizon has the opposite effect, pointing up a “numbing sameness.” Despite the divergent political agendas of a Boy Scout Jamboree or a Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Opie’s gorgeous photos remind us that there’s just one sky and one earth, and they meet in the same place every day.

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