In Review: Catherine Opie’s 2016 Exhibition at The Hammer

Alyssa Scott ’18


Catherine Opie is an American photographer who works and lives in Los Angeles, California.  A selection of her work with old master portraiture is currently on display at the Hammer museum in Westwood, Los Angeles.  The exhibition is a showcase of twelve portraits and one abstracted image of a landscape in a small rectangular white room.  A high, dome shaped ceiling and light tan colored concrete flooring combat the closeness of the space.  Each picture rests seamlessly on a section of the unmarked white walls, outlined by sleek black frames.  The photographs depict Opie’s colleagues who mainly work in the fields of art, design, film, or writing.  The figures in each image are captured during moments of intimacy, where the subjects are telling secrets, reading, doing their hair, shirtless, etc.  Their outlines bleed into a deep black background that gives the array of portraits a sense of continuity.  Connie Butler, the chief curator, illuminates Opie’s general influences in the section statement located outside of the exhibition room, noting that Opie is inspired by Renaissance style paintings.  The exhibition is only contextualized by this one short paragraph, leaving the viewer to draw conclusions about the individual photographs without the aid of wall text.

When viewed in relationship to Arjun Appadurai’s 2003 essay “Disjunction and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Opie’s portrait exhibition becomes a comment on the implications of globalization that plays on changing definitions of time and space.  Globalization complicates linear views of time by creating a series of technologies that bypass traditional notions of preservation. With an increase of technological innovations came a mechanism for digitally sustaining songs, images, or texts over time.  For forms of art like photography these digital records can exist not only beyond the limits of time, but also age without damage.  Opie’s photography exhibition at the Hammer responds to this shift in understanding of time by exploring the relationship between old and new.  The juxtaposition of contemporary photographic methods and framing devices with a Renaissance inspired ovular shape problematizes the previous distinction between past and present.  

In his article on globalization, Appadurai quotes Fredric Jameson’s phrase: “nostalgia for the present.”  Jameson’s expression encapsulates Opie’s technique of situating contemporary images within an old framework, eliciting a feeling of “nostalgia” for iconic figures from the current generation.  Appadurai continues to contend that “nostalgia [is a] central mode of image production and reception.” Based off of Appadurai’s view of globalization in correlation with the cultural economy of images, Opie’s artistic technique transforms into a methodology for generating positive viewer acceptance in a contemporary photography exhibition.  

To generate further viewer receptivity, the images carry an air of regality, likening Opie’s photographs to those painted by Renaissance artists of Kings and Queens.  In paintings from that time period a viewer can often see each brush stroke the artist painted to create an image intended to capture the physical features of an individual.  To create the aesthetic necessary for her exhibition, Opie did not utilize this form of labor.  Her medium of photography hides the work she put into posing the subject, creating optimal lighting, and framing the image.

As a result of globalization, once visible labor becomes mechanized.  Photography inherently shields the labor of the artist by physically placing the viewer in the position of the photographer in the setting of the museum, where they won’t feel the work.  

The idea of space and orientation is key to understanding the multitude of meanings a work can have for different groups of people.  As with the concept of time, globalization upsets the traditional experience of space by incorporating the realm of technology.  Cultural territories are no longer dictated solely by land; the construction of technology has created “imagined communities” that complicate cultural affiliations.  The mobilization of images from popular cultures across the world creates “nationalisms” that have value systems and methods for constructing the self, just as physical nations do.  A community, like a class on a field trip, may share the overlying culture and territory of their school, but there are many more nuanced sub-cultures of the students that impact the way they perceive images.  Opie’s choice to only include one section statement outside of the exhibition room creates an experience that amplifies the multiplicity of observations for the viewer.

The temporal and spatial elements of exhibitions have prominence regardless of the subject matter, but carry specific resonance in regard to a collection of works that comment on the terms’ changing definitions with globalization.  Analyzing Opie’s work in reference to time and space raises questions about how the exhibition would be viewed differently in another city, or during another time period, and whether the photographs would carry the same significance.  Whether intentional or not, Opie’s exhibition at the Hammer is a visual and experiential representation of the changing spatial and temporal aspects of globalization.