An untitled 2009 photograph from Cathy Opie's "Surfers" series is in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
On Monday night, the photographer Cathy Opie gave a lecture in the Burchfield Penney Art Center's auditorium as part of a lecture series co-sponsored by the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, the University at Buffalo's visual studies department and Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center.
Opie's work ranges from black-and-white portraits of the gay, lesbian and trans communities of Los Angeles to elegant pictures of curving freeways in the style of the great 19th century landscape painters. It includes matter-of-fact street photography that directly comments on American politics and formally accomplished images of radical messages carved with a scalpel into her own body.
As UB professor Jonathan Katz noted in his introduction, Opie's power as an artist comes at least in part from her unique ability to insert radical notions about human sexuality -- or at least, notions that are radical to most museumgoers -- in packages that work very hard to seduce the viewer. (In that way, I think her work shares an essential thread with that of Cindy Sherman, whose photographs have a lot to do with dressing up uncomfortable ideas in pretty clothes.)
But much of her work, some of which is in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, is fascinating for its unassuming beauty. She showed a great deal of it Monday night, including a series of portraits of high school football players that expertly capture her subjects' self-protective masks and their vulnerabilities and serve as a refreshingly simple and straightforward record of American sports culture.
Two seemingly opposite forces seem to be at play in Opie's work: radical ideas about sexuality and community, on one hand, and the quiet, personal desire to make work that quests after some notion of the sublime on the other. Those apparently disparate ideas seem to meet somewhere in Opie's best pictures, all of which hold fast to the ideals of social documentary photography. That all of these ideas can live comfortably together in the same frame is what to my mind makes Opie one of the more fascinating photographers working today.