City Lights

John Haber
in New York City

Catherine Opie: American Cities

Christina McPhee: La Conchita Mon Amour

Catherine Opie makes photographs. It sounds trivial to say so, but it means something these days. She squeezes the heart of American cities down to sixteen inches in height. Her frequent use of black and white updates a long tradition of photojournalism and Depression-era visual poetry for an age that struggles to recover its downtowns. She lets the white of bare walls and sky become shades of gray.

Christina McPhee makes digital prints, to the point where one might not easily imagine her and Opie in the same world. They convey detail and color with perfect clarity, and they layer memory upon memory on an enormous scale. When colors vanish, they do nothing to cushion the impact of black and white. They translate easily into video, where the fragmentation builds into unspoken narratives. They recall art media and mass media alike more than old-fashioned journalism. No wonder she can intersperse them with abstract drawings, to complete the story. Catherine Opie's Untitled #7 (St. Louis) (Barbara Gladstone, 1999-2000)

Both, however, map disappearing communities and the lives they held. Both allude to the urban disaster at Ground Zero, without showing it at all. Both are at their best in facing the facts. It helps to consider Opie and McPhee together, along with brief mention of still another urban scene after 9/11, from Nathan Lyons. (You may see this review as an extended postscript to a two-part article on McPhee's digital landscape.)

American cities

Catherine Opie's world looks barely fit for human life, especially when it contains people. The landscape and people of the South, however empty or strange, for William Eggleston will never hold the same menace. Her glum, muscular portraits and family pictures would scare anyone away, and perhaps they have. Her landscapes have little pedestrian traffic. Fragments of architecture often interrupt them, as if hurriedly left behind.

In Opie's "American Cities," the flight might well ended long ago. Her photographs have more breathing room now but precious little air. The myriad dead ends around Wall Street seem to have cut it short. So does the ceiling of a nearly empty garage or a cantilevered roof over open space in Chicago. Frontal views exaggerate their width and thrust them out of the picture plane.

History has invested a view toward the future One World Trade Center with more meaning. Yet Opie's other streets stand just as barren, without even Oliver Stone to populate them. Even when a river view offers open sky, low clouds and evening light press down heavily.

Opie's latest photographs feel more composed in the sense of carefully arranged as well, and their asymmetry often hits one only slowly. A single shot might pair a church and a high rise. The glass on both façades could almost pass for stone walls. Another photograph tethers the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis to the spans of an old steel bridge. It also relegates the idealism of Eero Saarinen to a distant corner—quite literally the single point of light in a very dark sky.

It says something that Opie presents the confining garage ceiling and welcoming canopy as parallels. It says something, too, that I cannot say for sure whether the latter isolates elements of the Prairie School or the lobby of an office tower. I found myself puzzling out the light—or even the reality. I wanted to decipher the time of day. I wanted to figure out what could have driven away the cars and people. The twentieth century does not seem to have done a lot for these cities.

Opie insists that anything requires careful staging, even emptiness. Zwelethu Mthethwa does much the same in South Africa. That attitude can feel more than a little hokey at times, even in her seriously quiet views of American beaches. Yet it pays off. She presents not so much a commentary on Modernism and society as a study in quiet and unease.

Good night and God bless

The few color prints show Lake Michigan, with the horizon line roughly across the middle and rudely horizontal. The two blue rectangles in each could recall the calm of a Mark Rothko. Then again, they could just as well present blunt masses. The play between entry points and dead ends also makes me think of Thomas Struth street scenes.

For some, her view of Lower Manhattan will offer the most resonance and disquiet. I prefer the entire gallery room devoted to enclosed, second-floor skyways. They make explicit the idea of people doing their best to avoid exposure to air, and the mismatched buildings to either side extend the broken symmetry. Almost none displays anything more than glass and structural support. And naturally the exception allows a poster to proclaim "God Bless America."

Nathan Lyons also tackles city streets before and after 2001. As so often, Silverstein Photography pulls off a thorough survey of a career I hardly knew existed. In contrast to Opie, Lyons often settles for less than memorable compositions and so benefits when subject matter takes over. He started working before 1960, but my favorite series turns to America's attempts at coping with disaster. It contains those displays of the flag that sprang up everywhere after 9/11.

Every so often, Lyons indulges in irony. The flag abuts a magazine cover's display of flesh. Mostly, however, they stick to close-ups, as if only formal constraints could keep the emotional pressures on politics under control.

Christina McPhee, too, understands the irony of crowded cities with too many memories. She has photographed San Francisco streets. She has documented her own travels through northern and southern California. However, no one would mistake her work for street photography. One has trouble classifying it as photography at all, and why bother?

A print is a photograph, of course, and a photograph exists as a multiple. With her prints and videos, however, a digital medium seems to have a still more complex history. That history might start with a single color, black.

Black mon amour

McPhee's digital prints do what glazes on canvas cannot. They appear not glossy or subdued, but clear, unreflective, and pitch dark. For all their size, one cannot mistake them for the fashionably large, static photographs of Jeff Wall or Andreas Gursky. Rather, like Barbara Ess or Barbara Crane, they contain fragmentary images on a tremendous range of scale, down to that of traditional photography or even contact prints. They flood the gallery walls with light, deep color, and sheer information. I had never seen black so transparent to the light.

They also record a flood. "La Conchita Mon Amour" documents the aftermath of debris flows that devastated a small coastal town in southern California and remain visible to this day. Built on a mudslide, La Conchita has had its share of disasters, most recently in 2005, when rains washed out the roads and ten people died. from Christina McPhee's La Conchita Mon Amour (Sara Tecchia, 2006)McPhee mimes another kind of disturbed flow as well—of observation in real time. She returned to the site at one-month intervals, with its crushed cars, vacant yards, improvised gardens, and battered homes. She calls the community's gestures a "vernacular shrine to the dead," and she could be speaking of her work, too.

Her overlaid images can look at one glance like landscapes, at another like personal histories. What looks at first, too, like the sheer blackness of acetate hides traces of intense color. Compared to past digital work, she allows herself more explicit naturalism, but also the appearance of rubble. I imagined a nonsite by Robert Smithson pouring its contents off the wall. Susan Sontag asked whether a "straight" photographer's single point of view merely uses the suffering of others, but can an artist's transformation of the scene avoid that danger, or must it add yet another appropriation? Perhaps both, but at least it can pour out the fragments so that others can decide.

Above all, I imagined the human experiences buried and lost. Six months earlier, McPhee appeared in a winter group show "Persona-Personae." I liked the title for the challenge of pronouncing it alone. However, it also corresponds to a recurring theme of modern and recent art, at least since Cindy Sherman in all her disguises and since the ego fixation of Lucas Samaras. Perhaps it goes back even before Pablo Picasso's empty masks. Such theorists as Jacques Derrida ask one to see every presence as a "supplement," every representation as a trace—and digital art promises to bury the traces ever and ever deeper.

The title feels particularly right for McPhee. She got the long central wall for five images that never sit still for long, and I cannot begin to locate all their personae. I greatly admired several past artists at the gallery for their polished appropriations of late Modernism. Perhaps I had minor reservations about how the component parts add up. However, with McPhee's digital collage the disconnect makes a dynamic subject in itself.

The construction of the prints alone suggests a breakdown in time and succession—what Gilles Deleuze in describing New Wave film has called "beyond the movement-image." They make use of both overlay and juxtaposition, sometimes of repeated images or close variations. I again think of contact sheets or a film strip, and of course the exhibition title puns (badly) on Hiroshima Mon Amour, the film by Alain Renais. Blackness further labels the prints as a representation of the process and materials behind their own making. If this sounds like a hint of Modernism within the frenzy of the media age, so be it. The photos began with a medium-format or digital camera, but they work well, too, as abstraction or as new media.

Missing persons

In fact, an abstract drawing comes between each pair of prints, and a video plays along with them. McPhee's pencil swirls across the page in loose clumps of curves, leaving plenty of white space. They could stand for successive moments in crossing a physical landscape. The video ticks off a further collage of photographs, like a metronome.

I like having the media displayed together, interrupting one another, and responding to one another. I have argued that a medium can inform the work of art, but also that one cannot reduce a medium to its essence or "message." Besides, one should not see prints this alive as a single, overcrowded composition. One has to linger over the spaces that others have left behind. During McPhee's gallery talk to accompany the exhibition, a listener wished that more flowers offered hope amid the bleakness. I wanted to insist on the luminosity of her blacks and their relationship to the drawings' fields of white, as spaces for uncertainty and hope.

Reference to a film strip indeed makes me think of a detective, holding the evidence up the light. Does film noir often stand for a heightened elegance, a lost world of fedoras and leggy brunettes? In her gallery talk McPhee spoke of the allure of trauma, and in past video she has herself presented a natural disaster as a crime scene. Looking at the sites here, one starts to wonder where all the people went.

One can hear their unseen presences in the video, which incorporates muffled voices and the harsh sound of traffic along the Pacific Coast Highway. All three media, however, linger over absences, from empty lots to traces of the artist's hand. To steal again from Derrida, one can think of the accumulated blackness as a crossing out, a presentation of the images as "under erasure." It reminds me that the French, sous rature, derives from the verb rater—to miss. I could count the artist herself among the missing persons.

Christina McPhee's iraqieye/one ( felt the presences in a different way in those prints last winter, which have a vertical format and roughly the dimensions of a bedroom mirror. I felt them in different ways, too, in McPhee's previous videos and in tart but creamy abstract paintings from not long before. One can see all those elements in her work now, and it is worth lingering over the personal and artistic history that they bring.

Even in her abstract paintings, I made out a head thrown back, barely showing through the sleek, blackened surface. In the recollections at once of Abstract Expressionism, self-revelation, and feminist irony, had she more in common with a painter like Cecily Brown than she herself may think? In fact, my imagination had run away with itself. Back then, too, she had based her art on landscape. But was I altogether wrong?

Slippery slopes

While working on those abstract landscapes, McPhee lived in the Southwest, where one can no doubt afford some nostalgia, and I took delight in her quiet flirtations with image and abstraction. She displayed them with fragmented photographs in a horizontal format that suggests a landscape's horizon line. Still other works used pencil for line or thick handmade gray paper as support. The quiet layering still reminds me both of Brown's games with surface and of many a formalist's with a painting's support.

At the time, I had to speak of small pleasures, and I suspected that I would recall the mix of styles and media as transitional. I wondered then if McPhee would have to face up to her art's tangled relationship among abstraction, the represented scene, and the imagination. In the meantime, though, I kept the blue-green image of an exhibition postcard near my desk while I wrote.

Christina McPhee's iraqieye/one ( was not far wrong. In some of McPhee's first experiments with interactive software, she created sound and images that one can stretch or compress with a mouseover. In another gallery show, her tape played out moments of a dream. On a Southwestern highway, she lay face up with her head and upper torso on camera, like Sherman without the disguise—or the disgust. As the camera circled around her head, a cryptic narration unfolded, speaking of loss in relationships and in art. It still haunts me, only I do not get to play. In the lovely tale of loneliness, I do not even get to feel shame for the male gaze.

I have written separately about later, still more ambitious digital narratives. Here her own intervention into California's seismic landscape becomes at once a science project, a detective story, a map of the world, and an elusive self-portrait. They, too, track a natural disaster as a tale of cultural decisions and human lives. She had also begun to incorporate real-time geologic data along with her self-portrait, and she raised questions about the stability of either, not to mention the claims of both to truth in representation.

She has continued to work in all these media, and these strains all come together in her mammoth prints. From small pleasures, she has gone to covering the gallery as itself a landscape. Vertical prints adopt the format of her most recent panel paintings, like doors leading from the gallery to riskier territory. Part of me still prefers the starkness of the vertical frames to the dark horizontals of "La Conchita Mon Amour." I also miss the traces of disguised narrative in those past videos, which raised questions about the authority of data-driven modes of representation. However, McPhee now pulls together a greater density of phenomena than ever before.

Did I want to turn away from references to Hiroshima after 9/11, when people seem determined to exploit omens of disaster everywhere? When I first saw McPhee's simultaneous interests in drawing and photography, did I wonder if her work was in transition or slipping away from me? Now she describes actual slippage, in those mudslides. Now, too, transition and slippage have become the conditions for her art.

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Catherine Opie's photographs ran at Barbara Gladstone through October 14, 2006, Nathan Lyons at Silverstein Photography, through October 7, "Persona-Personae" at Sara Tecchia through February 25, and Christina McPhee's latest solo show through November 22. Portions of this review will have appeared in Artillery magazine (December 2006). You may see it as an extended postscript to a two-part article on McPhee's digital landscape. I refer to McPhee's earlier show through February 26, 2000, at Cælum and to works that challenge me online. She continues abstract painting and multimedia, which have been featured in the March 2005 Whitney Artport.


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