Back to the Basics with Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie

Art Review by Joe Karlovec

Contemporary photographer and Ohio native Catherine Opie breathes life back into two traditional genres of art in ‘Portraits and Landscapes’, on view until August 2nd, 2015 at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio.

The exhibition consists of 40 portraits and 10 landscapes of color pigment print photography. As the subject of her portraits, Ms. Opie uses family, friends, and colleagues, people with whom she has a close personal relationship. Each work is titled after the first name of each subject.

Catherine Opie

Within each portrait the subject is situated in front of a black backdrop with minimal lighting. The figures seem to emerge to the viewer through a heavy shroud of darkness. This not only helps establish a deep emotional intensity, but it also connects the work to the Italian renaissance technique of chiaroscuro and the historical works by Caravaggio. Even the way the figures are posed is reminiscent of 16th century Hans Holbein portraits, further aligning the work within the western idiom of traditional European painting. The resulting images appear formal yet personal, piercing yet gentle, characterized by a profoundly delicate vulnerability capable of unleashing the voice and power within each subject.

Although Ms. Opie is best known for her portraiture, the landscapes in this exhibition are a dramatic shift from her previous work. Ms. Opie has photographed temporary ice fishing villages on frozen lakes in Minnesota. She has photographed surfing communities on the California coast as they wait for the perfect wave. She has produced a series of photographs for the Cleveland Clinic depicting the dramatic season changes in northeast Ohio along our great Lake Erie.

Catherine Opie

Each of these examples dealt with specific localities of a particular place and time. The previous works engaged socio-spatial dynamics of site to provide a richer portrayal of collective identity. Previous photographs conceptually engaged the physical and metaphysical properties of water with underpinnings of anticipation and change. Though compelling, these landscapes operate in a much different manner than the new works in ‘Portraits and Landscapes.’

Within the installation, the landscapes appear few and far between. Portraits make up a majority of the exhibition. The landscapes are hazy, blurry, out of focus, and unrecognizable. The most interesting part of the work is their mysteriously elusive origin. Even the way they remain untitled further removes the work from any level of specificity that had been so important in her previous series.

Catherine Opie

The landscapes function as an escape, or ‘rhetorical respite’ as Ms. Opie explains. An escapist view of landscape speaks true to the picturesque tradition of American pastoralism. Yet this time, the escape is from the psychological intensity of her portraits, and the indistinguishable hazy compositions of light and color in her landscapes are anything but traditional.


Joe Karlovec earned his BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2009 and he is currently studying at Kent State University in pursuit of his MFA in Painting and Drawing. He has worked as a Curatorial Intern at the Akron Art Museum and Gallery Assistant for the School of Art at Kent State University. Contact Joe Karlovec at