Tue 19 Sep 2023 to Sat 2 Dec 2023
Tue-Fri 11am-7pm, Sat Noon-7pm
Artist: Catherine Opie
Thomas Dane Gallery, Naples presents Catherine Opie’s Walls, Windows and Blood, a new body of work initiated during the artist’s American Academy in Rome Residency in summer 2021.
‘The idea of City’ was the theme of the Residency invitation and Opie conceived her research on the form, history and architecture of the Vatican City. Fascinated by the idea of this city within a city, with its own rule of law, Opie sought to explore the politics of this place, taking an unflinching look at the architecture of power and how we might make sense of Catholicism, its structures, reach and impact in an age when the ideologies and legacies of Colonialism are being questioned.
In this way Walls, Windows and Blood is a continuation of ideas explored in recent bodies of work such as The Modernist (2017), Rhetorical Landscapes (2019) and most recently 2020, a series in which the artist documented an unprecedented year of demonstrations against police brutality and monument iconoclasm on a road trip through North America. In these series, and here again, Opie focuses her eye on the politics of place and its relationship to identity, questioning what is held within these symbols and places of power, and our personal and collective responsibilities in relation to accepted geopolitical structures.
Working in Rome as the world was in fluctuating degrees of lockdown, Opie had unfettered access to the Vatican Museum – which normally teems with thousands of visitors daily – with only the security guards and a few visiting scholars for company. Working both on film and digital cameras, Opie proceeded to photograph the Vatican Museum and City with a systematic and formal methodology over the following six weeks, visiting the museum four or five times a week and spending hours in its empty halls and corridors.
The exhibition at Thomas Dane Gallery opens with seven tall vertical Walls, which exist as both photographs and sculpture at once. Leaning within the architectural columns and against the walls of the gallery, each work sits upon a pair of pink-red low marble pedestals designed by American Academy Architecture Fellow Katy Barkan, and hand crafted by artisans in Naples. Opie documented the entire wall system around the Vatican City with her 35mm panorama Hasselblad XPan camera turned portrait orientation, focusing on each corner, either pointing in or out from the Vatican City, each with a security camera returning our gaze. Like the artists of the New Topographics, such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Opie creates a systematic taxonomy of a site, making richly textured black and white prints on fine art rag paper which revel in the artifact and materiality of the walls and the printing medium itself.
These architectural corners are echoed in the design of the marble plinths, whose own architectural properties switch orientation in dialogue with the subject. These plinths are both a nod to the rich grandeur of Rome and the Vatican City, and at the same time are reminiscent of an art ‘block’ used to temporarily lean an artwork during installation, or a plinth used to present and protect an object. Here in Opie’s work, they intentionally de-stabilise, creating a sense of vulnerability and a precariousness. Where Opie has asked us previously in 2020 to question what a monument is and our relationship to history, and how society preserves, supports and maintains systems of power through these sites and symbols, here she asks us to question the power symbolised by these architectural structures, and perhaps suggests their foundations might not be as stable as they present.
Throughout the gallery Windows intersperse with Blood grids, in conversation with one another and the space. Where the Walls are structurally formal, the Windows are poetic and quiet, playing with shadows, light and architectural details, and the interiority and exteriority of space – an idea recurrent in Opie’s work – in those with views out to the Vatican or to Rome. Others are concealed and covered with blinds, posing questions about transparency and opacity. In one we catch her reflection. What is the relationship of this city to the city it sits within, to the world, Opie asks. How do we manage accountability and transparency? How does one wrestle with the politics of an organisation within the context of its own bloody history?
For the Blood grid works, Opie photographed every single representation of blood and bloody wounds depicted in paintings and tapestries in the collection of the Vatican Museum, capturing these with meticulous close framing in situ. If we consider the Walls and Windows the body of the Vatican, then the Blood grids are its life blood, and make visible the violent histories embedded within the Church. Opie has worked with blood as subject and medium since the early 90s, with works such as Self-Portrait / Cutting (1993) and Pervert (1994) borne out of the context of the AIDS epidemic. The Blood grids explore the grand narratives running through the power structures of the Church as communicated in its art, and ask how we can begin to find a new way of re-telling these stories that forever proceed us. The framed images are presented in a modernist grid as her own taxonomy, but an adaptable and ever moving one. Arranged in aesthetic choices by Opie, hands and feet guide the eye through the grid; every once in a while a detail is repeated, but closer up. Each component part is purposefully separate rather than a composite print: anybody could choose a different system, a different story, if they want to.
The exhibition ends with No Apology (June 5, 2021), an image of Pope Francis on his papal balcony addressing the Sunday congregation. On this day the Church first acknowledged – but did not apologise for – the bodies of Indigenous children found in unmarked graves in Canada, who died in the abusive care of Church-run, government-funded residential schools whose aim was to assimilate children into Euro-Christian society. Sharing this gallery space, which is almost like a confessional, the work faces Blood grid #4. The following year in 2022, on a papal visit to Canada, Pope Francis made a formal apology to the Indigenous peoples of Canada for the Church’s role in running these torturous institutions – part of a dogmatic European expansionist regime to spread Christianity – and the devastating effect it had on generations of Indigenous peoples.
Catherine Opie (b. 1961, Sandusky, Ohio) received her BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1985, and an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, in 1988. In 2000, she was appointed Professor of Fine Art at Yale University, and in 2001 she became Professor of Photography at the University of California, Los Angeles. Opie's photographs include series of portraits and American urban landscapes, ranging in format from large-scale colour works to smaller black and white prints. Moving from the territory of the body to the geography of the city, Opie's various photographic series are linked together by a conceptual framework of cultural portraiture.
Her work has been exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally. In 2017, a survey exhibition entitled Catherine Opie: Keeping an Eye on the World was on view at the Henie Onstad Art Center in Oslo, Norway. Solo exhibitions have been organised by MOCA Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles (2016); UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2016); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2016); the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus (2015); Long Beach Museum of Art (2012); and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2008). Her work is included in the permanent collections of many museums worldwide, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; The Royal Academy of Art, London; The National Portrait Gallery, London; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Israel Museum, Jerusalem; and Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, among others. Catherine Opie lives and works in Los Angeles.