I often walk past the Stephen Friedman Gallery as I wander down Old Burlington Street – their wonderful frontage means it’s always easy to have a quick peek at the current exhibition without going in. But their current exhibition of Catherine Opie photographs is reason enough to stop and take a closer look. Although simple at first glance, Opie’s works have always been far more complicated and powerful than they initially appear. They cross diverse genres including portraiture, landscape, and street photography, exploring complex issues of community and identity across her American homeland. Opie has always been interested in the conditions that people live and how communities form and are defined.
Catherine Opie, The Gang, 1990. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com.
This is a simply, but very well, curated show. Opie’s work is known for moving between portraiture and landscape and this exhibition harmoniously combines these two realms, presenting two very different bodies of work: a selection of portraits from her Girlfriends series and a new series of landscapes, captured at sea – Twelve Miles to the Horizon: Sunrises and Sunsets.
Catherine Opie, Sunset 5, 2009. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com.
Taken from the mid-eighties through to 2010, Girlfriends is a striking, stark series of black and white portraits showing a diverse range of friends and lovers. Opie’s representation often aims to provoke. With no excess allowed in her compositions, these sitters are themselves and they dare you to accept them as they are. The works have a playful intimacy, often highly sexualised, that transforms them from voyeuristic objects into subtle peeks into the artist’s world.
Catherine Opie, Gabby (back), 1989. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com.
Twelve Miles to the Horizon: Sunrises and Sunsets documents Opie’s journey on a Hanjin cargo vessel, travelling across the Pacific Ocean, from Korea to California. Living on the ship for 11 days, Opie documented each sunrise and sunset. The images work in pairs, in conversation with each other, focusing on the passage of time and the transience of a day. For me, these aren’t as exciting as the series in the front gallery but they certainly are beautiful and Opie puts her mark on the well-worn genre of landscape photography.
Catherine Opie, Sunset 6, 2009. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com.
Time for a drink so we headed over the cobbles into Mason’s Yard for White Cube’s exhibition of new works by Jeff Wall. I know it’s cold, and there are Christmas decorations adorning the whole of London, but this was the first true indication that winter has arrived – for the first time in months there were more people inside the gallery than outside (where the bar is). Quelle horreur! As at Stephen Friedman, White Cube are showing two series of works. The first, upstairs, Sicily, 2007 consists of only three photographs. This was in complete contrast to Opie’s use of landscape. Using his typical large-scale format, Wall evokes ancient settings, mingling eras in a timeless world that he creates. The works came about after a holiday to Sicily where Wall was struck by the powerful rocky landscape and the sense of desolate beauty. The sheer scale of the works is necessary to convey the impact of the landscape. Wall doesn’t wish just to photograph stunning scenery but to explore the power of nature. This is most successful in his black and white images, showing that colour is not important here, only shape and space.
Jeff Wall, Hillside, Sicily, 2009. Image via www.thisislondon.co.uk.
Downstairs, White Cube are showing seven new works that depict a figure or a group of figures, who appear to be playing or enacting a role. Again, the photographs seek to transport the viewer to Wall’s timeless world. They are always carefully composed and staged.
One such work is Boy Falls From Tree that aims to show a contrast of calmness interrupted by drama. Yet, the drama does not really impact on the tranquillity of the scene. The boy is playing a role; although staged, the scene is real, it isn’t created digitally, Wall actually did have someone fall from a tree but ‘protected him from the consequences’. It is this that gives his work such imaginative depth – staged reality (whether on TV or in art) always captures the public imagination most of all.
Jeff Wall, Boy Falls From Tree, 2010. Image via www.whitecube.com.
These are good exhibitions but not really exciting and the whole evening lacked the normal buzz of PV nights in Mayfair. Even though there are now PVs every night of the week, and the same people attend the majority, it’s always easy to lose track of time chatting. The art world never sleeps and there’s always gossip to be shared and news to be exchanged. Reports from friends dotted over London at other openings weren’t encouraging and, with little time to spare before they shut, I decided to put the others on my list on hold until later this week. The joy and nightmare of living in London is the amount there is to see but I wouldn’t have it any other way.