Catherine Opie’s “The Modernist”
through February 17
Regen Projects, Los Angeles
By Mario Vasquez
A “flaneur” is defined in the dictionary as “an idle man about town.” In the context of modernism, the flaneur is a wanderer of the city, who seeks to connect with the experiences of modernity and modern life. What happens when the flaneur wanders the city with fear, anxiety and the need to burn?
Photographer Catherine Opie’s new body work called “The Modernist,” currently at Regen Projects and on view through February 17th, explores a narrative where the protagonist named Stosh, aka Pig Pen, wanders the city with a sense of rage. Pig Pen begins to burn mid-20th century modernist homes across the Los Angeles landscape. Opie is a Los Angeles based photographer whose work focuses on various subjects from LGBTQ subject matter, to the natural world, to other subjects such as the private possessions of the late actress Elizabeth Taylor. In “The Modernist,” Opie explores the current angst and zeitgeist through the lens of French experimental film, narrative, and allegory.
“The Modernist” is divided into three different parts. In the main gallery are the photographs, which are stills from the film, the film itself, which is shown enclosed in a special theater designed and installed by architect Michael Maltzan, and in the smaller side gallery are the collages that sets up the psychological aftermath of Stosh’s acts of arson. Each room creates a narrative and sets the scene where the observer views the photos, then the film, and finally the collages.
Opie’s photographs are stills from the film, which is shown in the theater in the middle of gallery. Each photo portrays a step, a deliberation, a process in which Stosh sets in motion the very acts that would set on fire the Stahl House, Sheats-Goldstein house, and other mid-century modernist homes. The main character shaves, grooms, and prepares for the eventual destruction fueled by angst that has engulfed Stosh. A photo of a lit match, Stosh pouring gasoline, and Stosh eventually looks out upon Los Angeles with a gas can in hand. I am reminded of Bas Jan Ader’s In Search of the Miraculous photos portraying an artist walking through Los Angeles; the subjective being expressed in the form of an action whether it be wondering the city or burning down the symbols of a modernist past.
The film being shown within the theater clarifies Stosh’s actions of arson, Opie’s protagonist in “The Modernist” is really an anti-modernist who goal is to destroy the symbols of an optimist view of progress, which defines modernist view of progress. Using Chris Marker’s Le Jettee, a 1962 French science fiction film where the protagonist, while set in a post-apocalyptic world, goes back in time to realize that the past and future need to be destroyed to save the present. Opie’s Stosh is seen as someone who needs to destroy both past in the form of the modernist homes, which exists in today’s Los Angeles, to save the future.
The question is why Stosh, as “The Modernist”, is pursuing the acts of arson on the very modernist symbols that modernism produced. Opie is now making an interesting proposition. What if the very symbols and ideas of modernism are now the old and withered concepts that modernism in the past has sought to reject and break from? In the early 20th century, modernism, which was pursued by the likes of the Bauhaus and other proponents, wanted to break from the classicism that was the defining philosophy from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Stosh acting as a “new modernist” now seeks to break from that which is now the tradition. Opie’s latest works questions the “progress” of the last 100 years, and as an observer of the current political and social condition of 21st century America and the world, creates a protagonist in the form of Stosh to burn the whole thing down.
Opie’s new work is provocative and forces the viewer to examine the changes and development that has lead to the current condition today. This is an excellent exhibition and Opie challenges the idea of progress and what that progress has produced. The only problem with the body of work is, unless you study or are familiar with the work of the Chris Marker or French experimental film, the photos and the film may give the viewer the false sense that it’s a mere PowerPoint presentation or a slide show. The observer may be easily lead astray. Otherwise, Opie creates an allegory of our times that challenges the past, present and future.