Arts + Culture

Catherine Opie sets fire to L.A. architecture in her first film

In “The Modernist,” the celebrated photographer aims a critical lens at the fetishization of midcentury modern homes

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“The Modernist”
Brian Forrest, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Installation view of Catherine Opie’s “The Modernist” at Regen Projects, Los Angeles Jan. 12–Feb. 17.

For more than 30 years photographer Catherine Opie has challenged societal norms around gender and sexuality and shed light on overlooked subjects with her groundbreaking photographs. Her work has adorned the walls of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Hammer Museum at UCLA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among renowned cultural institutions. Now, though, Opie is shifting her work from photographs to moving images in her first film.

Opie’s newest installation, “The Modernist,” debuted recently at Regen Projects in Los Angeles and will run through Feb. 17. The film is a montage of black and white photographs of a struggling artist obsessed with art and architecture in Los Angeles that critiques contemporary social and political issues. For Opie, “The Modernist,” is an opportunity to flesh out the housing crisis in Los Angeles and to showcase the idea of a utopia in a dystopian world.

“So there are always a few kinds of positions within my work. They are the relationship of documentation, of landscape, of portraiture and of ideas around sex of queerness,” said Opie, who has been a professor of photography in the UCLA Department of Art since 2001. “I was trying to make a piece that combined all of that, but also allowed for a narrative structure to adhere to it, which is something that you’re not necessarily able to do with just only a series of photographs.”

“The Modernist” is a 22-minute compilation of black and white photos that follow the story of a man (“Pig Pen”) — portrayed by an artist named Stosh Fila, who is a good friend of Opie’s — as he fantasizes and obsesses over Los Angeles midcentury modern architecture, and the life associated with being a successful artist. The postwar modernist homes were supposed to make affordable housing in Los Angeles more attainable and make modern design accessible, but instead these homes, some of which were designed by the likes of Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, became beacons of the impossible.

“’The Modernist’ is in some ways a culmination of many years of not only thinking about Los Angeles as a city, but also by going back and using my good friend Stosh as a model or as a character to really kind of complicate the relationship between the body and the housing crisis,” Opie said.

Catherine Opie
Courtesy NPR
Catherine Opie

In the film, Pig Pen collects pictures of different modernist buildings in Los Angeles and news clippings of fires in California. He arranges them in a collage on a board in what appears to be his own attempt at a modernist apartment. After staring at the photos and obsessing over them, Pig Pen paints flames over the images. He is then depicted dousing houses with lighter fluid, lighting matches, and eventually burning the Chemosphere house and Sheats-Goldstein residence after being driven mad by the unattainable dream of affordable housing and artistic success.

Opie counts herself an admirer of John Lautner, the architect who designed the houses that Pig Pen burns.

“Both the Chemosphere and the Sheats-Goldstein were two house owners who gave me permission to photograph them,” Opie said. “Lautner is one of my favorite architects of that period of time in Los Angeles. The Chemosphere is just so unique photographically and both of those houses have been used quite a bit in Hollywood movies.”

Opie said her work was inspired by Chris Marker’s dystopian film “La Jetée,” which she described as “unbelievably brilliant.”

Opie hopes viewers look at the piece holistically. “I think that you know the piece is in some ways an easily read narrative but layers of it metaphorically are really complex and I just hope that it’s more about people really experiencing it and that they’re interested in it for the language that I’ve laid down within this piece.”

As part of the viewing experience, “The Modernist” screens inside a small custom designed theater with concrete walls and a few rows of benches inside the gallery. The theater, designed by architect Michael Maltzan in conjunction with Opie, “adds this other kind of layer in relationship to an installation and you get to almost walk into this perfect little modernist cube that definitely makes you begin to think about modernism as a site in relationship to architecture,” Opie said.

Opie said that she sees the film as a new expression of the thought that goes into her art.

“I think that a lot of work is about reflecting on your own interests and questions that you might ask yourself, but that art also is of our time. I mean that’s the interesting thing about the contemporary narratives that we’re living in. We’re making art in relationship to what we’re thinking about.”

Catherine Opie will speak about “The Modernist” with architect Michael Maltzan, designer of the theater, at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 10 at Regen Projects. You can check out “The Modernist” at Regen Projects until Feb. 17.

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