Catherine Opie first came to prominence with her “Portraits,” 1993–97, a series of photographs documenting members of queer communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Since then, Opie has worked with a wide range of subjects, photographing everything from Los Angeles freeways to communities of surfers in Malibu and ice fishers in Minneapolis. Her midcareer survey, “Catherine Opie: American Photographer,” is on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York September 26, 2008–January 7, 2009.
I MOVED FROM Virginia to San Francisco in 1982, where I came out as a lesbian. I can’t imagine a better time and place to have done so. It was incredible, too, because that was pre-AIDS, and then I watched AIDS happen and became part of ACT-UP and Queer Nation. During our time at CalArts, Richard Hawkins gave me a book on Hans Holbein, and when I began my series “Portraits,” I decided that it was important for me to look at people in the queer community not as segmented bodies but as whole individuals. Holbein brought an enormous amount of dignity to his work (along with rich color and saturation). There was an equality to his paintings—they weren’t demigod portraits, they were just incredibly detailed and real. When I saw that, I realized that I wanted to mirror his work with members of my own community. It seemed like a good conversation to have, especially in relationship to the s/m community, which was thought of—and still is thought of, to an extent—as predatory or perverted. S/m was often framed in the language of the abnormal, which stripped it of its humanity. I wanted people to have a humble moment with my friends.
I’m a multidimensional person—I don’t have a singular identity. I’m not just Cathy Opie the leather-dyke artist. I’m Cathy Opie the person who’s interested in cities, architecture, landscape, my family. People say, “Your work is so diverse,” but it’s actually not that diverse when you take a broad look or when you walk through this installation at the Guggenheim. There’s a strong aesthetic identity and concern with formalism that travels through the different bodies of work. I’m working with diverging layers of what it means to be human in these different contexts. It’s just as interesting for me to look at mini-malls as it is for me to make portraits of my friends—I mean, I like to look at my friends more because they make me cry and they’re sweet and they’re of my memories, but the mini-mall functions in the same way. So do the domestic portraits.
The most recent work in this exhibition is “In and Around Home” [2004–2005]. It’s the most narrative work—there is a beginning and an end—and I think of it as a sort of culmination of many of the projects outlined on the different floors at the Guggenheim. It evokes street photography; it’s about my family, a queer lesbian family in South Central Los Angeles; it’s about the news and mediation of the news in our own home and how that affects us. How do we find truth in these images? That’s why I wanted to use Polaroid when taking photos of images on the television—Polaroid is the unmanipulated image in our day. Now it is the gone image; it’s become extinct.
The Guggenheim exhibition ends with “In and Around Home,” but since then I’ve been working on two other series, “High School Football” and “Alaska.” I’m also having fun with a new body of work called “Girlfriends,” which is something of a play on Richard Prince’s biker girlfriends, except that mine are all butch dykes. It’s an inquiry into my own desire. A lot of them are famous: K. D. Lang; Kate Moennig from The L Word; Sam Ronson [Lindsay Lohan’s girlfriend]; Idexa, who was a subject of my “Portraits”—so even my friends who have become iconic through my own photographs. I shot J. D. Samson this past weekend, another important butch icon. At first my partner, Julie, was like, “Should I be offended by this?” And I was like, “No, honey! You’re my lover, it’s different. This is ‘girlfriends’—it’s the potential of desire.”
Publicity still for Tere O'Connor, Rammed Earth, 2007. From left: Heather Olson and Matthew Rogers. Photo: Paula Court.
For over twenty-five years, New York–based choreographer Tere O’Connor has been actively agitating for a nonnarrative, philosophical, and exploratory approach to dance and dance-making. O’Connor is also known as a mentor in the community and a frequent curator of dance at venues such as the Kitchen and Dance Theater Workshop in Chelsea. Here he discusses his reprise of Rammed Earth (2007), which runs September 24–28 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York.
RAMMED EARTH is an iteration of my idea that there are elisions between dance and architecture. Coming to terms with a piece of architecture is a temporal experience, even though the structure itself is a solid, finished thing. The reverse—or parallel—in dance is that you experience something through time, and in the end, the way you come to terms with it is by building a little finality from images you take from it; the human body gives its own sort of architectural information. I think sometimes of dance as spraying dust on invisible possibilities—or histories—in the space.
The title comes from a technique for building a house in which you lift dirt from the place and mix it with water and clay and then tamp it back it down to make the most solid walls possible. (It’s being used a lot in green architecture right now.) I love the metaphor—it’s not just a metaphor that’s poetic but an active metaphor. You begin, you go through a choreographic process, and something is born right from the place you’re working. Dance is something that just happens; it doesn’t translate preexisting ideas. The specific way that you exit that idea is the closest you can get to “meaning.” If I were doing a piece called Kitty Cat, the piece would look very different, but it wouldn’t look like a kitty cat—it would look like the experience of moving away from that idea.
Rammed Earth isn’t a depiction of something architectural. I’m not making works that are semaphoric—the imagery isn’t a signal for something, it is the result of a process. I refer to someone like Zaha Hadid; she looks at the systems that are going to be in a building, or she looks at the traffic patterns, and the building is created from that—it’s not something that she sees that she then forces all of that into. I’ve also been inspired by Martin Kippenberger; he really supported the idea of not having a signature form. I don’t necessarily want there to be a “Tere O’Connor style.” It’s just this investigation that I’m in the midst of, and it’s nice for people to peek into it once in a while.
The piece itself is just this dance, and it’s like water; if you put it in a bowl it fills the bowl, if you put it in a shoebox then it will fill the shoebox. It has what I call liquid space: It’s fixed dance, but the dancers can snake around and interpret the choreography according to the specific space in which we’re performing. They can do duets close together one time and duets far away from one another the next time. The idea of touring the work at different kinds of sites is really the most exciting one. You’re re-informing each space with the dance. The audience isn’t just seeing dancing, it’s seeing architecture brought into evidence.
At the beginning of the piece, the audience is in the middle of the space and the dancers are dancing around them; this brings a sense of dimensionality not inherent in pieces presented before an audience. The second section willfully switches from an immersion to just such a proscenium setting, but I hope that the sense of dimensionality remains. People often just read the front information of dance. The experience of feeling these different levels of space will hopefully lead the dance to being understood in a more embodied way.
I think dance has been somewhat crippled by the fact that people want to language-ify it. They want to find meanings that are finite and act like writing or film—things that I love, but that I think dance doesn’t do very well. I see attempts to force these elements together, trying to make this form—which I believe is abstract and philosophical—mimetic, as a way of saying “I’m a swan now.” It’s silly and at the same time it just doesn’t reach the possibilities that this form has. Choreography has its own system, and I don’t want to get in the way of that. One of the most important things in that system is tangent—it provides an aspect of depth during the chronology of making a dance. It suggests a whole different value system outside of the “good/bad” paradigm.
At one point, some people in my life had cancer, and they were receiving radiation treatments, but they were also having to go to work. And I thought, how inelegant of me or even cruel of me to go in and choose “good” and “bad” and be able to cut one out. They can’t cut the “bad” out. I started to think of editing as an inclusive idea. For my work Baby , I tried keeping everything, including this cowboy who comes up in the piece, which is something I don’t like—I had to find a context for it. So that’s what I learned—to look at editing not simply as cutting but as a kind of recontextualization of the material that you have. It’s about being the “nurse” for the piece as opposed to the “doctor.” It’s about not bringing to bear what we could call “intelligence” on an editing system, but to let the thing itself show you its systemic rules. It’s a pluralistic interpretive system—it’s a basket for everyone to throw up in.
View of Gary Webb, “Euro Bobber,” 2008, Pilar Parra & Romero, Madrid.
For the past decade, the London-based artist Gary Webb has developed a sculptural language conversant with the medium’s modern history and playfully experimental with its intrinsic characteristics: form, mass, color, and the relationship between constituent parts. His new exhibition, “Euro Bobber,” opens at Pilar Parra & Romero in Madrid on September 18 and runs through October 25.
Unlike my exhibition earlier this year at the Approach in London, this show comprises mainly freestanding individual sculptures; there are no wall-size “split” mirrors that visually knit together the space. What I have done, however, is paint the gallery in different colors. The space here is split up—its various levels are arranged around a central column—but you can see from one room to the next. That column is painted pink, the walls are various colors including baby blue, and the storefront window is painted black. One assumes on entering that there will be little or no color in the show and is then confronted with an overload of color.
Installing an exhibition offers me, in a sense, my first opportunity to see my sculptures whole. My studio ceiling is quite low, and we can hardly set up some of the sculptures inside it. I see the pieces side by side; I build them sideways, then wheel them outside, put them together on a patch of gravel surrounded by rubbish bins, and take a look. There is always an element of surprise in the work in that regard. It contradicts the sheer length of time it takes to produce a sculpture, which would imply that every aspect is planned out in advance.
Instead, I’m usually working on several sculptures at once. Everything is carved in polystyrene first and then cast from those molds. There are always at least three or four shapes in the midst of the casting process at the same time. We adjust and twist those pieces, find the best ways they fit together with small wooden pegs, decide the colors that should go on them. It’s important to balance a few at once, to be tweaking always, to make sure the works are not heading down the same route. For a while in the studio, everything is gray and white. It’s a little depressing, actually. The painting only happens at the very end, once the engineering is complete. Then the works can be sent off to be sprayed. It’s important to get as much of the experimentation as possible done early in the process, because it’s hard to go backward once a form is cast, and harder still once the paint has been applied.
Because the work has to be fabricated, many people think that the labor itself is outsourced. But I’ve found that no one else can do the polystyrene carving, the form giving. For example, the guy who sells me the material itself designs props for film sets, for which some company sends him a drawing and he creates its elements in polystyrene. So once, I thought I’d try that; I sent him a drawing and had him execute it. It didn’t work. The same goes for studio assistants. The whole thing is a strangely intuitive process, one that requires constant decision making.
I try not to interpret the works for viewers, but I can say that they represent aspects of reality, things that physically happen, rather than purely imaginative constructs. The works respond to how objects exist in the world, how buildings are put together, or how things are arranged on the street. I’m interested in the way that people have consciously decided how things should be arranged, and in ripping those decisions apart.
Left: An untitled collage from See Saw Seems, 1965, black-and-white film in 16 mm, 8 min. Right: Stan VanDerBeek in his Movie-Drome, 1963–65. Photo: R. Raderman.
Artist Sara VanDerBeek, who, with her brother, Johannes VanDerBeek, and Anya Kielar, owns Guild & Greyshkul gallery, is the daughter of experimental filmmaker and animator Stan VanDerBeek, who died in 1984. Guild & Greyshkul presents an exhibition of Stan VanDerBeek’s work from September 13 to October 18.
THE PROCESS OF ORGANIZING our father’s estate and putting together this exhibition has been intensely emotional and very exciting for both Johannes and me. When he passed away in 1984, only a few months after an initial diagnosis of cancer, there were no instructions regarding how his artworks should be cared for or organized. Everything was piled up in his office, and it was eventually split up among various family members. Only recently, as the administrative aspects of handling the estate have become too difficult for our mother, and as our father’s first wife asked us to handle the artworks in her possession, have we realized the scope of what he kept. It turns out that much of what went into making the films and multimedia installations remains extant, but not much has been done to organize it. We spread everything out in the empty gallery this summer and began to piece it together, a process made difficult by the fact that sometimes only photographic documentation remains to guide us in reconstructing moving-image and three-dimensional artworks. To that end, I describe some of these works as “approximations.”
Johannes and I initially decided to present an overview of our father’s career, but now that we’ve installed the exhibition, we realize that it focuses on his involvement with language—in particular his desire to create a means of universal communication using images. There are many early works, from the 1950s and early ’60s, some of which an audience familiar with his work might not know. The show includes a twelve-part series of paintings from around 1956 that combines small images with words and seems to us to mark the beginning of his experimentation with animation. With certain works like the fax mural and Violence Sonata , the show touches on his experiments with then-new technologies, which occurred with increasing frequency from the late ’60s until his death, but which we realized could constitute another show in itself.
One challenge is presenting this work in a gallery context. While he was collegial with a wide range of people—from scientists and computer programmers at places like MIT and Bell Labs to artists like Claes Oldenberg and Jim Dine, who is the main performer in a film we’re exhibiting—he remained most closely involved with the experimental-film, -media, and -animation communities. He never worked with a commercial art gallery during his lifetime, and the majority of the items he chose for his CV were performances, screenings, multimedia events, and residencies. This is, like everything else, a problem compounded by the facts that we’re his children and that we have very different ideas about how to present the work than he might have had. Finding that balance has been both a challenge and a pleasure.
Some decisions were easier than others. For example, we’re presenting a whole wall of collages, most of which our father signed and dated, which indicates to us that despite the fact that he used them in animations, they are themselves finished artworks. Making his animations was such a time- and work-intensive process that I can’t imagine many such collages survived, and he would want to present the ones that did, whether as artworks or as concrete documentation of that process. Something I really enjoy about seeing these works together with the films is the shift in scale: They are all quite small, especially in comparison with how large the images become when projected onto a wall.
All this, of course, bears on my own art. Earlier this summer, I went away from New York and came up with an idea for a large multipart photographic work. When I returned and was laying out one of my father’s fax murals, I realized that the gathering of different framed images that I had imagined must have been directly influenced by him. The re-presentation of images from his archive that I had done in earlier photographs of mine also crops up in his work: He not only used found imagery but reappropriated images from his earlier work in later pieces. Symbols and themes—hammers that hit people on the head in comical ways, forks flying through the air and poking people in the eye, using images of eyes to direct viewers’ attention—recur through his films.
We hope that the way we’ve organized the exhibition will allow artists working today to connect with our father’s practice. He was also an incredible writer, and we’re presenting some of that material, along with drawings, on tables in the gallery. His utopian desires—the Movie-Drome [1963–65], the fact that he lived for some time on a piece of land owned by an artists’ cooperative—and his wry take on contemporary politics seem particularly relevant today.
During the past fifteen years, New York–based artist Nicole Eisenman has created a self-aware and psychologically probing body of work that includes installations, animations, drawings, and, with increasing focus, paintings. “Coping,” an exhibition of new paintings and monoprints, opens today at Galerie Barbara Weiss in Berlin and will remain on view until October 18.
I made the paintings in this exhibition throughout the past year, gravitating, as I often do, to particular images (both found and imagined). I put them in drawings and then on canvas, initially working on one at a time and then on several at once. When selecting paintings for the show and thinking about them as a group, I realized that they are all somewhat depressed or depressing and that what ties them together is their embodiment of different notions of coping. The world can be a depressing place these days. I don’t think I’m depressed—though I did experience something akin to a midlife crisis recently—but the state of the world, and my opinion of it, necessarily filters into the work.
The earliest painting in the show is Coping; it depicts people trudging through muck in a town setting, which directly preceded a revelation I had in the studio that it was time to try painting interiors. That in turn led to the canvas that depicts me in a therapist’s office. But the epiphany about painting interior spaces was less about the subject matter than it was about my need to push myself formally. I frequently paint vague outdoor scenes, like Coping or The Fagend, in which the figures are placed in an artificial, tableaulike environment. If you take the figures out of The Fagend, it’s just a big bunch of abstract blocks with patterns on them. I liked that aspect and wanted to pursue it further. To do so, I debated taking the figures out of these canvases, but I couldn’t. I’m not ready—and don’t want—to make that jump.
In a way, I couldn’t do it because I don’t know how else to make paintings. What would I pull from? If the figures aren’t included, these constructed worlds seem entirely removed from reality and rather self-indulgent. You need the figure—or, rather, I need the figure. Not necessarily for narrative, as the work ends up being as much about feeling or atmosphere as a particular story. The atmosphere of this show is one of sadness. Sadness arises from particular circumstances, but it can move from the mind into the body, from something focused into something more general—a lethargy, that pit in your stomach. I hope there is a connection between the movement of an intense emotion as it infiltrates the body, becoming less legible if no less present, and the dissolving of the figures in my works into patches of abstraction. (Perhaps viewers will be able to tell I’ve been looking at Edvard Munch and the Impressionists lately.) This is particularly true of the thirty prints in the exhibition depicting people “crying,” where washes of ink run down and obscure their faces.
In a way, the whole show is a collection of faces. When visitors walk into the gallery, they encounter the thirty prints and then Brooklyn Biergarten II, a very busy scene—a painting of heads that are locked in space because their bodies lie on top of one another. Last year, when I painted my first beer-garden scene, I immediately wanted to keep painting them, to paint them for the rest of my life. There’s a whole genre of paintings, particularly French ones, of people eating and drinking, and the beer garden seems to be the equivalent, for certain residents of twenty-first-century Brooklyn, of the grand public promenades and social spaces of the nineteenth century. It’s where we go to socialize, to commiserate about how the world is a fucked-up place and about our culture’s obsession with happiness. The paintings in this show hopefully present something of a ballast to that obsession. It is healthy to look at sadness in the world, and in yourself, and to dwell on it for a little while.