Eye of the Beholder: Catherine Opie’s 17th Century Experiment

The photographer channels Caravaggio for her new show at Regen Projects

In the works of L.A.-based photographer and UCLA professor Catherine Opie, subjects calmly and directly meet the viewer’s gaze. Whether captured in situ — sand-crusted on the beach after surfing, or sweating on a field through football practice — or foregrounded against a brilliant plane of color as in her portraits of the queer community, her subjects remain earnest and unaffected before the camera.  

Opie’s new work, on display at Regen Projects in Hollywood, wanders farther afield by hearkening back. Drawing on the formalist composition of 17th century portraitists like Rembrandt and Caravaggio, Opie stages her subjects in dramatically lit, evocative poses, eyes cast aside. We become interlopers. But since the individuals form part of Opie’s extended community network, they gain the feel of intimate glimpses into a family photo album.

In “Mary,” the camera dwells on a woman sweeping up her hair into a chignon in a pose reminiscent of Degas’ bathers. “Lawrence (Black Shirt)” depicts a careworn man gazing into the middle distance with a joint resting in his hand, his tailored shirt unbuttoned over a tanned paunch. These moments of private abstraction invite a psychological analysis distinct from Opie’s traditional, reciprocal gaze.

Likewise, her new landscapes extend the California Pictorialists‘ emphasis on Impressionistic soft-focus imagery. Though the movement was rejected as too traditionalist even at its peak in the early 1900s, Opie revives the technique by reinterpreting landscapes into blurred essentialist abstractions.

Opie’s work is on display through March 29th.