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Catherine Opie: Empty and Full Opens at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston
Catherine Opie, Untitled #5 (Inauguration Portrait), 2009, C-print, 16 x 24 in. (40.6 x 60.9 cm), Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles, CA ©Catherine Opie.

BOSTON, MA.- This spring, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston opened Catherine Opie: Empty and Full, an exhibition of new and recent work by photographer Catherine Opie. One of the defining artists of her generation, Opie is known for her portraits and landscapes. In this exhibition, Opie has taken photographs of recent political demonstrations and gatherings—ranging from the inauguration of President Obama to Tea Party rallies. Her work explores the intimate relations between community and politics, citizens and the landscape, offering a dynamic portrait of the United States at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Organized by ICA Chief Curator Helen Molesworth, Catherine Opie: Empty and Full is on view at the ICA from April 15 through Sept. 5, 2011.

“Catherine Opie: Empty and Full is a timely exhibition by an important artist, whose work continues to pose and frame questions about the most basic human values: love, community, family, and freedom,” says Jill Medvedow, director of the ICA.

“Opie’s recent work elaborates on the relationship between people and place, particularly the energy and desires created when masses of people convene around a shared interest or value,” says Molesworth. “Freedom of assembly is one of the rights Americans take for granted and Opie is interested in the way that sites, such as the National Mall in Washington, D.C., come to be defined by the groups of people who assemble there and how their gathering shapes the identity of the place. Drawing on the long and august tradition of American landscape painting and documentary photography, Opie ultimately gives us a picture of a great experiment: democracy in action.”

The first series is entitled Inauguration and documents the enormous crowds that convened in Washington, D.C., for President Barack Obama’s inauguration. These images show us portraits of Americans assembled en masse on the Mall, bundled up against the January cold to await the arrival of the new president. Shot against a landscape of pale winter light and bare trees, Opie’s photographs capture moments of individual emotion on a day that recognized the hopes and voices of an American majority.

Other works are images of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and the annual convening of the Boy Scouts of America. These works further Opie’s interest in the specific use made of the landscape, as well as her ideas about the wide variety of ideals and beliefs held by Americans in their pursuit of a meaningful life. These lush and pastoral images are held in contrast with images Opie has been taking of political protests in urban areas, notably Tea Party rallies, pro-immigration marches, and anti-war demonstrations. A comparison is made between urban and rural, pleasure and protest, leisure and commitment, all of which add up to a rich and complex view of the United States, our citizens and our deeply engrained relationship to the landscape.

Installed around the perimeter of the ICA gallery is a series of devastatingly beautiful images of the ocean. These images, from a body of work called Twelve Miles to the Horizon, were taken over a period of ten days, one at every sunrise and one at every sunset, from the deck of a massive container ship making the passage from Busan, Korea, to Long Beach, California. These pictures of sunrises and sunsets all share the same horizon line, are radically unpopulated, and are feats of technical precision and sublime beauty. Their “emptiness” stands in stark contrast to the fullness of the political pictures.

Despite the formal differences between the two “types” of images on view in Empty and Full, there is also a strain of continuity. In each body of work, Opie suggests a profound level of interconnection and interdependence that people have not only with one another, but with the spaces we collectively inhabit.

Born in 1961 in Sandusky, Ohio, Catherine Opie has become one of America’s premier documentarians, photographing the American landscape—from its Alaskan glaciers to its suburban freeways—as frequently as she images its citizens. A graduate of Cal Arts, she currently teaches in the studio program at the University of California at Los Angeles. Select solo exhibitions include Catherine Opie: Figure and Landscape at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2010), Catherine Opie: American Photographer at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (2008), Catherine Opie: Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2006). Opie was a 2009 recipient of the President’s Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Women’s Caucus for Art and was awarded a United States Artists Fellowship in 2006.

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