A still from Catherine Opie’s “The Modernist,” screening at Regen Projects, Los Angeles.
FROM THIS EPISODE
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.
A still from Catherine Opie’s “The Modernist,” screening at Regen Projects, Los Angeles.
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The late LA artist Mike Kelley was long preoccupied with Superman comics, specifically the mythical city Kandor, capital of the planet Krypton. Now, if you go to Hauser & Wirth Gallery in downtown LA’s Arts District you can find “Mike Kelley Kandors 1999 – 2011.” The show is made up of architectural renderings, drawings, sculptures, installation videos and set pieces, all tied to Kandor.
“The story is that Brainiac, an evil villain, was running around the universe, stealing cities, shrinking them, storing them in bottles and then taking them to his lair. And Superman goes and rescues his own hometown,” said Mary Clare Stevens, the show’s curator and Kelley’s longtime studio manager.
“And then Superman is forever then guarding and protecting the shrunken city of Kandor with all its tiny little inhabitants, including his parents and relatives presumably, and he's keeping that in the Fortress of Solitude.”
She explains the project fits within Kelley’s other interests: alienation, historic depictions of the future, the nature of memory and nostalgia, and how we project onto self-created narratives.
You begin your visit in a room with a large banner that says ‘Welcome to KandorCon 2000,’ part of an imagined convention of Kandor enthusiasts.
Against the wall you’ll find a series of Superman comic book panels, each depicting the city of Kandor, made by various illustrators over the years. You can see architectural models by local SCI-Arc students of the fantasy cities, and a video of an actor who looks like Superman caressing a bell jar while reciting poems by Sylvia Plath, author of “The Bell Jar.”
But just as you feel it’s getting a little obscure, you walk into a dark room that is filled with 21 large glass bell jars, each on its own stand, each filled with its own little imaginary city made of colored resin. The jars are made of tinted glass and the whole effect is quite beautiful.
“It almost looks more like some kind of modernist sculpture versus a city. It's a very radical interpretation of a city. So there's this openness about what architecture is, what a city is,” Stevens said.
“It's really a breathtaking experience to go in there,” said KCRW art critic Hunter Drohojowska-Philp. She knew Kelley well and even she was stunned by this room. “There's just a sense when you see the work in reproduction that it's a bit more casual than it is. I and many of my colleagues were absolutely astonished at the obsessive level of crafting detail in almost everything in that show and the way those bottles had to be hand blown glass done in Austria… the whole operation of finding that person and developing that technology was really the Kandor triumph.”
Drohojowska-Philp explains the fascination held by Kelley – and fellow LA artist Catherine Opie, also a guest on this DnA – for utopian architecture and cities. Both Los Angeles itself and its 20th century buildings, as well as movie depictions of the future were a source of inspiration.
The Hauser & Wirth show closes this weekend with a series of experimental music performances inspired my Kelley’s own musical forays, including with the Detroit proto-punk band he founded, Destroy All Monsters.
Installation view, ‘Mike Kelley: Kandors 1999 – 2011,’ Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017. Art © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All Rights Reserved / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Pinault Collection. Courtesy the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen
Review: Mike Kelley's Superman moment: "Kandors" at Hauser & Wirth
VIDEO: Paul Schimmel on the Complexity of Mike Kelley’s ‘Kandors’ Exhibition
Constant Creation, With a City in a Bottle
Review: Mike Kelley Uncorks Superman’s Kandor City in a Bottle
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