“We thought, ‘Let’s have a Cathy Opie moment in L.A.,’” Connie Butler, chief curator at the Hammer Museum, recently told the L.A. Times, referring to the suite of Opie shows on view at three of the city’s major museums. Each features work from a different period in the artist’s nearly three-decade career. The biggest exhibition, and perhaps the tamest, is at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Pacific Design Center through May 8 — large-format photographs taken in Elizabeth Taylor’s home in 2011, the year the screen icon died. The smallest, oldest work appears at LACMA: seven intimate, grainy, black-and-white images, all from Opie’s O series documenting San Francisco’s bondage scene, on view through September 5, showing needles through a stomach’s skin, or a pierced face resting against someone else’s barely legible limb.
Nearby at the Hammer (through May 22) are Opie’s recent, dramatic portraits of art world figures. The Rodarte sisters, fashion designers, wear flowing dresses and conjure the Brontes. The faces of Matthew Barney and John Baldessari glow and float against a velvety black background. This work “engages directly with Old Master painting,” the museum didactics explain. In some ways, the regal compositions do recall Rembrandt, the subjects posed in the center of the frame, with dramatic lights and shadow, but they also suggest conventional studio photography.
The through-lines connecting Opie’s three bodies of work are these: each responds to an iconic past artist, and each reflects Opie’s position in her “community” at the time. The O portfolio riffs on Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1970s X portfolio, images of gay sex, including hardcore S&M. These understandably feel the most daring — they have a vulnerable edge, since Opie photographed a marginalized world she knew.
The photos of Taylor’s quaint kitchen, jewels, and closets of shoes, done when Opie was already something of an LA icon herself, pay homage to William Eggleston’s images of Graceland. But Eggleston’s saturated dye-transfers, though produced on commission from Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., convey a morbid skepticism specific to a cranky artist who revered and despised his native South. Opie gained access to Taylor’s house because she and Taylor shared an accountant. Her prints are deferential, considerate. At the Hammer, Opie’s subjects — all well known and, with the exception, perhaps, of performance artist Ron Athey, embraced by institutions — look beautiful and canonical. Kara Walker stares off, stately. Jonathan Franzen reads. What makes this trio of exhibitions interesting is not the quality of the images, though those at LACMA are affecting and those at the Hammer imposing. It’s the way they trace a career, from probing at the margins to claiming the center.