Catherine Opie’s “The Modernist” sets fire to iconic LA homes

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LA photographer Cathy Opie has made a short film about an arsonist who loves mid-century-modern LA houses so much, he’s driven to destroy them.

You may have seen LA photographer Catherine Opie’s photos of the LA freeways empty of cars, or of Elizabeth Taylor’s belongings, or of her own naked body, carved and tattooed.

Now she has made a 22-minute film called “The Modernist.” It tells the story in 800 black and white still photographs of a transgender artist who loves mid-century-modern LA houses so much, he’s driven to destroy them.

It may feel like a departure from Opie’s past work from her 30-year career, but in fact it connects some of her favorite themes.

“It’s about architecture, it’s about portraiture, it’s about people, it’s about how this city functions in this specific way, from shooting Beverly Hills and Bel Air houses to freeways to mini-malls. I’m always interested in the mapping out of place,” Opie said. The film is showing at the Hollywood art gallery Regen Projects, in a screening room designed by LA architect Michael Maltzan.

The film pays homage to Chris Marker’s experimental science fiction featurette “La Jetée,” as well as being a valentine of sorts to The Los Angeles Times, the late architectural photographer Julius Shulman, along with a utopian and dystopian LA. It manages to be both shocking and funny.

It was also made in 2016 during a presidential election in which “Make America Great Again” was a campaign slogan and nostalgia and dystopia were major themes. “And so my quandary is, if modernism was the utopian dream, does it now have a relationship more to dystopia?,” Opie asked. “Like, how do we really begin to unpack this relationship of nostalgia that has come up as this 1950s racist, singular idea that is antiquated in where America has actually gone in my opinion?”

The exhibition at Regen Projects opens just after Southern California has experienced massively destructive wildfires and mudslides. This isn’t the first time an Opie project has had such interesting timing. She made a whole body of work on Wall Street just before the 9/11 attacks. “I ended up showing the work in December after 9/11 and of course it became a memorial to Wall Street,” she said. She also photographed Elizabeth Taylor’s home, and Taylor passed away in the middle of the project.

“That’s one of the things that I love about photography, is photography is able to create histories. But it also reflects on already known histories. We know that things cycle through life, people cycle through life, you’re alive and then you pass. It’s like the weather or tide or an eclipse. We’re constantly challenged with just what life is and the matter of life. What has happened is devastating but it always happens… California has always burned,” Opie said.