Mild obsessions: Catherine Opie

When I was in L.A. back in January, I spent most of a day luxuriating in my senses at the Museum of Contemporary Art and The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. By late afternoon, I wandered into a basement room at the Geffen and sat down on a modern, red couch. My feet and legs, unused to traipsing for miles on concrete, were glad for the rest. My head was swirling from everything I’d taken in.

A large TV was looping a series of short interviews of artists whose work was featured in the exhibit upstairs (The Artist’s Museum). Catherine Opie was one of them.

Upstairs I’d been transfixed by her dusty images of empty freeways. They were desolate, beautiful, and slightly terrifying. Where did everyone go? Who built these graceful behemoths? I wanted to thank the person who let me see them and to find out more about her. So I waited for her interview, enjoying the experience of sitting in the basement of a museum, all alone with nowhere urgent to be.

When I walk through museums or galleries (contemporary or modern), I try to give attention to each piece. I hope for an emotional or intellectual response, but often my response is no response. Sometimes, I have just an inkling of interest or feeling, and I pause briefly.

Less often, a piece hits me suddenly and hard, opening me up and making me raw. It’s happened with Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith, among others. I never quite know what to do except to stand there longer, observe carefully, and revel in the moment as long as I can. Afterward, I leave feeling like an improved version of myself, like I found a new source of meaning and excitement.

That’s been my experience with Opie’s work. I’ve seen her photography both in person and through media. My favorites (besides the freeways) are the photographs of Lake Michigan, ice houses dotting frozen lakes, and surfers looking small from far away. Am I connecting with something in her that was shaped by her upbringing as a queer kid in Sandusky, Ohio–right next to one of the great lakes?

Her interview on the looping video turned out to be the last one in the loop, so I sat there in the quiet basement for about 40 minutes, learning about other less interesting artists, and finally saw her:

After my trip to L.A., with Opie on my mind, I noticed this short profile of her and her family at And this New York Times profile delves into her background and other work.

I want to see more of her work so am vowing to check the listings of any city I visit. She has at least one upcoming show in Boston at the Institute of Contemporary Art.


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