at Regen Projects Los Angeles (Through February 17, 2018)
Reviewed by Emily Nimptsch
Bursting onto the Los Angeles art scene in the early 1990s with her enthralling and empathetic portraits of the LGBTQIA community, internationally acclaimed Ohio-born photographer Catherine Opie is currently setting the city ablaze again with the release of The Modernist, her haunting and provocative debut film project at Hollywood’s Regen Projects.
In the middle of the gallery floor, guests will find a sleek and reflective box-like structure. Built by Los Angeles-based architect Michael Maltzan, a Los Angeles-based architect known for his work on Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Building, the Sixth Street Viaduct, and Regen Projects itself, this highly futuristic form houses the film projector and some seating while complimenting the film’s space age aesthetic. Lining the walls of the gallery, visitors will also find 33 photographs highlighting significant moments in the film.
Comprised of over 800 black and white still photographs, this 22-minute silent movie centers upon a young Los Angeles-based artist fascinated with the city’s famed mid-century modern architecture. The viewer watches helplessly as this complex anti-hero portrayed by Opie’s friend and longtime collaborator Stosh Fila, also known as Pig Pen, becomes increasingly frustrated with Southern California’s outrageously exorbitant real estate prices and lack of career success.
The film traces his descent into madness as he cuts out Los Angeles Times headlines featuring the city’s modern architectural achievements as well as news stories about wildfires. He then assembles these clippings to form a collage on his wall along with troubling drawings of flames and clouds of smoke. Through this physical representation of his mindstate, the viewer can map his growing ire, resentment, and desire for destruction. In a pivotal moment in the film, we see a shift from potential to kinetic energy as he actually acts on these dark impulses and methodically commits acts of arson. He burns several of these iconic landmarks, including John Lautner’s Chemosphere (1960) and the Sheats-Goldstein Residence (1963) with just lighter fluid and some matches. Like the classic horror movie jump scare, the viewer may be startled by the squeal and sputter of the growing flames as the first match is lit. As these are the only sounds in the film, it is with this pivotal moment that the viewer realizes that dreams can, in fact, become reality, but they are not always ones of positivity or creation.
Installation view of Catherine Opie’s The Modernist, at Regen Projects in Los Angeles. (Brian Forrest / Regen Projects)
As the artist begins igniting all of these priceless architectural landmarks, the viewer starts to view him more as a villain. This characterization is actually quite intentional and playful as many of the mid-century modern homes featured in this film have also frequently doubled as abodes for some of cinema’s evil masterminds. For example, the Sheats-Goldstein residence famously sheltered evil-doers in both the cult hit The Big Lebowski (1998) and the big-budget sequel Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003). It is easy to see why filmmakers keep associating modernism with villainy as its austere and sophisticated design perfectly compliments this nefarious aura. In a print still taken from the film entitled Sheats-Goldstein #1, (2017) the viewer is presented with a classic villain trope, the artist’s silhouette seen from behind as he diabolically schemes, plots, and looks down upon the city below.
Indeed, The Modernist is a meditation on the meaning of failure, success, creation, and destruction. The young artist in the film does manage to bring his vision into the world and attain some sense of power, but he is undoubtedly acting out of anger stemming from his own failed dreams of artistic advancement and prosperity. He likely feels strangled by the pressure of trying to create while these examples of seeming perfection remain perched on the city’s hilltops like gods. Even though he worships them, he has to destroy the work of his idols in order to unblock his own creativity.
Now seen as symbols of unattainable beauty and wealth, mid-century modern housing was ironically originally meant to provide affordable accommodations to the masses. The architects of the the 1950s and 60s were striving towards more equalitarian residences that could be built economically en masse. Much like the artist’s creative passion, this noble vision for a better future also failed, leading to the city’s current housing shortage.
As the artist in the film worries about making ends meet, he also feels deeply nostalgic. As much as he adores this bygone era and its architectural wonders, he knows that it is gone forever. He mourns what could have been, a utopian city that never was, all while ignoring this period’s racist, homophobic, and sexist underbelly.
Here, Opie presents a man lost in time, a motif that ties The Modernist to its spiritual predecessor, La Jetée (1962). This 28-minute gem created by poet, novelist, and filmmaker Chris Marker explores themes of time travel and nostalgia through a string of still photographs. This stylistic and narrative homage, as well as the film’s copious silence transports the viewer back in time, perhaps even to the very infancy of filmmaking.
Weaving together highlights of cinematic and architectural history, Catherine Opie unifies the ephemeral and the perennial in this project. Comprised of light and air, film is ethereal in nature, but captures the disintegration of seemingly timeless steel and concrete here. The Modernist also features the destruction and renewal of the human psyche, revealing that ruination is a crucial component of the creative process. Ultimately, Opie presents the artist here as a wrathful, Old Testament-esque God, building and wiping out worlds on a whim. However, instead of drowning the Earth in a deadly flood, this deity chooses the flame.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.