Catherine Opie: The Modernist

at Regen Projects Los Angeles (Through February 17, 2018)
Reviewed by Emily Nimptsch

Bursting onto the Los Angeles art scene in the early 1990s with her enthralling and empathetic portraits of the LGBTQIA community, internationally acclaimed Ohio-born photographer Catherine Opie is currently setting the city ablaze again with the release of The Modernist, her haunting and provocative debut film project at Hollywood’s Regen Projects.

In the middle of the gallery floor, guests will find a sleek and reflective box-like structure. Built by Los Angeles-based architect Michael Maltzan, a Los Angeles-based architect known for his work on Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Building, the Sixth Street Viaduct, and Regen Projects itself, this highly futuristic form houses the film projector and some seating while complimenting the film’s space age aesthetic. Lining the walls of the gallery, visitors will also find 33 photographs highlighting significant moments in the film.

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Installation view of The Modernist

Comprised of over 800 black and white still photographs, this 22-minute silent movie centers upon a young Los Angeles-based artist fascinated with the city’s famed mid-century modern architecture. The viewer watches helplessly as this complex anti-hero portrayed by Opie’s friend and longtime collaborator Stosh Fila, also known as Pig Pen, becomes increasingly frustrated with Southern California’s outrageously exorbitant real estate prices and lack of career success.

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Catherine Opie. Still from The Modernist. 2017.

The film traces his descent into madness as he cuts out Los Angeles Times headlines featuring the city’s modern architectural achievements as well as news stories about wildfires. He then assembles these clippings to form a collage on his wall along with troubling drawings of flames and clouds of smoke. Through this physical representation of his mindstate, the viewer can map his growing ire, resentment, and desire for destruction. In a pivotal moment in the film, we see a shift from potential to kinetic energy as he actually acts on these dark impulses and methodically commits acts of arson. He burns several of these iconic landmarks, including John Lautner’s Chemosphere (1960) and the Sheats-Goldstein Residence (1963) with just lighter fluid and some matches. Like the classic horror movie jump scare, the viewer may be startled by the squeal and sputter of the growing flames as the first match is lit. As these are the only sounds in the film, it is with this pivotal moment that the viewer realizes that dreams can, in fact, become reality, but they are not always ones of positivity or creation.

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Installation view of Catherine Opie’s The Modernist, at Regen Projects in Los Angeles. (Brian Forrest / Regen Projects)

As the artist begins igniting all of these priceless architectural landmarks, the viewer starts to view him more as a villain. This characterization is actually quite intentional and playful as many of the mid-century modern homes featured in this film have also frequently doubled as abodes for some of cinema’s evil masterminds. For example, the Sheats-Goldstein residence famously sheltered evil-doers in both the cult hit The Big Lebowski (1998) and the big-budget sequel Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003). It is easy to see why filmmakers keep associating modernism with villainy as its austere and sophisticated design perfectly compliments this nefarious aura. In a print still taken from the film entitled Sheats-Goldstein #1, (2017) the viewer is presented with a classic villain trope, the artist’s silhouette seen from behind as he diabolically schemes, plots, and looks down upon the city below.

To read more of this review, go to Riot Material magazine: http://www.riotmaterial.com/catherine-opie-the-modernist/

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RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

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