This past week galleries re-opened across New York City after many long months of closure, and this art-starved critic leaped at the opportunity, quickly finding which galleries were allowing visitors and went on a long-overdue walk through the streets of Chelsea, to catch a glimpse of a painting or sculpture in situ for the first time in four months. Minus the hand sanitizer, mandatory mask-wearing, and glass shielding between visitor and gallery employee, it was just like old times. Of the few shows on view, Catherine Opie’s Rhetorical Landscapes at Lehmann Maupin on 24th Street struck a chord. The exhibition is composed of two distinct but related series, both of which are departures from the artist’s more well-known work: a set of sumptuous photographs documenting the Okefenokee Swamp along the border of Georgia and Florida, and a series of “political collages,” animated films on human-scale digital displays composed of cut-out images from magazines, intended as critiques of the Trump Administration and our larger political environment. The photographs occupy the walls of the exhibition space, forming a periphery of green, grey, and brown encircling the collages, which are arranged in a rectangle in the center of the space with one at each corner.
The first set of images depicting the landscape of the Okefenokee are simply exquisite pictures, razor-sharp in their photographic precision and evocative of what you might expect to see on the cover of National Geographic. Despite the difference in subject matter from some of her previous work, Opie employs the same crispness here with which followers of her career ought to be familiar. It should be noted as well that Opie’s post-production renders all of these within the same color palette, unifying the series and strengthening the political metaphor: in Opie’s mind, these images are representative of the ecological destruction wrought by climate change, as they are some of the environments in this country which are most at risk and least protected. This is an apt choice of subject by Opie, as the swampland of the American South is some of the most ecologically diverse lands in this country, and it primarily exists in states where environmental protections are at the greatest risk of being gutted by the Trump administration and other more local Republican climate deniers. It also just makes for uncannily beautiful photography; for example, in Untitled #6 (Swamp), the viewer can locate individual raindrops on the surface of the black water, allowing us to almost hear the tranquil rush of the downpour.
The “political collages” are intended to complete the metaphor insinuated by the photographs and the exhibition’s title. Each contains dozens of magazine cutouts making reference to the unfortunate state of our contemporary political sphere, in particular, the cruel and misguided policies of our current administration. When paired with the photographs of the Okefenokee, it reminds us of the President’s oh-so catchy campaign phrase, “drain the swamp.” The metaphor then is that swamps do not need draining, and neither does our democracy, instead, they are very much in danger and in need of protection. As objects which satisfy the impulse to denigrate our semi-literate President and the slew of misguided policies which he enables, the collages are quite successful. However, it became difficult to meditate on the beauty of the photographs, while in the presence of the collages. This reviewer had emerged from the cloistered reality of quarantine, traversed the now impeccably clean subway to once again breath in sterile gallery air, and found himself trapped within the morass of our infuriating political moment, with no clear exit in sight. Rhetorical Landscapes offers up natural beauty as a bait-and-switch, which forces contemplation of a disastrous present and a darkly uncertain future. Perhaps this is the point: at moments like these, art which offers a respite from crisis does us all a disservice, no matter how much we might wish to look away.
New York, W 24th Street
July 6 – September 26, 2020