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Catherine Opie, raised in Sandusky, Ohio, is a keen observer of her adopted home, Los Angeles, where she came to attend Cal Arts: Photographs of unpopulated freeways, arcing and spiraling with an elegance rarely appreciated when in traffic, facades of gated Beverly Hills houses, even strip malls with signs in an array of foreign languages. What she has not done, however, is confront head on the architecture most associated with the city, the clean, mostly residential, buildings considered “mid-century modern.”

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Catherine Opie. Still from The Modernist, 2017© Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles 

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Catherine Opie. Still from The Modernist, 2017© Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles 

Opie’s show at Regen Projects in Hollywood takes on that topic in a very L.A. way: her first film, The Modernist. Composed from black and white still photographs that she took, the film builds a schematic narrative of a heavily tattoed artist whose project is to burn down five masterworks of modern architecture. The series begins where an artist might, setting fire to the A. Quincy Jones house belonging to art dealer Larry Gagosian. There are scenes of the artist, played by Opie’s long time friend “Pig Pen,” planning the arson attacks using books on Case Study houses and small cardboard models. Cans of gas and boxes of Swan matches are lugged to John Lautner’s Sheats Goldstein house, which is a promised gift to LACMA. Other Lautner houses follow: The Chemosphere, Silvertop. Each time, the artist appears triumphant, clipping the news reports of the fires from the LA Times and mounting them as a collage on the wall.

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Catherine Opie. Match fire #4 (The Modernist). 2016. Pigment print. 40 x 26 5/8 inches (101.6 x 67.6 cm) © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles 

The film is silent apart from the sound of a single match being struck. I was reminded of Bill Viola’s use of this device in his earliest videos, the sudden flame and sound shocking viewers to attention. Opie (with Viola, and countless other media artists) owes a debt to Chris Marker’s 1963 La Jetée, a bizarre tale set in Paris after a nuclear World War III. It told via montage of black and white still photographs.

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Catherine Opie. Arsonist (The Modernist) 2016. Pigment print. 40 x 26 5/8 inches (101.6 x 67.6 cm)© Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles 

Opie’s film, like La Jetée, runs a little less than a half-hour. It is shown on a loop in a small theater of gently curved corners created by Michael Maltzan, the architect who also designed Regen Projects. The exterior is covered in a dulled silver wallpaper that reflects Opie’s individual black and white photographs in a distorted fashion. Vertical images that Opie took while making the film are arranged with meticulous formality on the gallery walls. While presenting the destruction  of a modernist past that embraced utopian ideals, Opie and Maltzan present a different vision for the present. Rejecting the notions of purity and singularity that evolved in modernist theory, Opie proffers an artist who burns down the posh symbols of such ideals. The show continues through February 17.

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Installation view of Catherine Opie The Modernist at Regen Projects, Los Angeles. January 12 - February 17, 2018. Photo: Brian Forrest, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles 


There is another artist long interested in modern architecture. Judy Fiskin, known for her small scale black and white photographs of L.A.’s stucco apartment buildings, or dingbats, made a black and white Super-8 film in 2006 about the end of photography. It was an ode to an era defined by modernist optimism that was erased by the rapid rise of digital technologies.

Like many photographers trained in the alchemical wonders of the darkroom, she was reluctant to accept an iphone as a replacement for her camera. She went on to make a number of films, all of them droll meditations on the passage of time and customs. Her latest, I Was an iPhone Addict (2017), embraces the feelings and thoughts common to many who use their iphones to document, memorize, post, share, and otherwise reduce lived experience to a mass of pixels. In the video, she sorts through her 7,000 images and tries to make sense of what, when and why those had been taken. She discovers that she, too, can reduce her visual sensitivities to mere cliches. More often, her astringent vision of L.A.’s beautiful banality shines through.

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Judy Fiskin. I was an iPhone Addict. 2017 Digital video runtime: 13 minutes, 49 seconds Edition of 10 + 2 APs Courtesy of Richard Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles

A selection of her previous videos and films are also available for viewing in the gallery. The show continues through February 17

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