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Since the early 1990s, Catherine Opie has produced a complex body of photographic work, adopting such diverse genres as studio portraiture, landscape photography, and urban street photography to explore notions of communal, sexual, and cultural identity. From her early portraits of transgender people and performance artists to her expansive urban landscapes of cities like Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and New York, Opie has offered profound insights into the conditions in which communities form and the terms in which they are defined. All the while she has maintained a strict formal rigor, working in stark and provocative color as well as richly toned black-and-white.
The exhibition, a major mid-career survey, gathers works from Opie’s most important series starting with the series Being and Having (1991) and Portraits(1993–97), that celebrate queer communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In Houses (1995–96) Opie explores her interest in domestic architecture through portraits of Beverly Hills and Bel Air mansions, in which each facade retains as distinct a character, as do her portraits of friends. Domestic (1995–98) offers a flip side to these works, moving inside to document lesbian families engaged in everyday household activities.
Freeways (1994–95), the first of her black-and-white series, offers a richly formal meditation on the Los Angeles highway system. Her impulse to document structures as icons and relics of human presence, especially those of Southern California, continues with Mini-malls (1997–98), which focuses on billboards, signs, and architectural elements identifying various ethnic and cultural groups in Los Angeles shopping centers. This series inaugurated the ongoing projectAmerican Cities (1997–present), an extended group of panoramic black-and-white series that so far has explored Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, and St. Louis.
Opie then looked toward more natural settings and the communities that exist there. Icehouses (2001) focuses on the way architectural structures accumulate human history but are at the mercy of the natural landscape on which they depend. In Surfers (2003) the subjects are virtually engulfed in the vast and gloomy shoreline of Malibu, forever suspended on a tranquil sea, primed to catch the perfect ride that may never come. Recently, Opie has turned to her own domestic life. In In and Around Home (2004–05), Opie’s family becomes a microcosm for political and social issues at play on a wider level, its status as a queer family becoming subtly apparent over the course of the series.