Photography by Julien Roubinet
Words by Brienne Walsh
The desire of modern architecture was to encourage more efficient and transparent living, thereby elevating human existence. Like most utopian dreams, however, modern architecture failed to achieve its aims. Human beings continued to make the same mistakes we have made throughout history: We started wars, we lied, we cheated, we destroyed the planet, we persecuted those weaker. Despite modernist architecture, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016, supported in some cases by people who lived in those same modernist homes, now relics from the past rather than visions for the future.
Opie deliberately left out any soundtrack or voiceover narration, choosing instead to tell the narrative using visual language: Pig Pen’s queer body superimposed over architectural masterpieces tells the history of haves and have nots in America, the words torn from newspapers and superimposed on his collage hints at the violence brewing in America. “Real change at helm,” reads one phrase. “Scorched earth,” another. “Fire’s charred and chilling landscape.” The words are bloated with current events, such as the wildfires that have raged across California this past year, but also hint at revolution, the rumblings of which are only just beginning as the United States becomes increasingly polarized over issues like immigration, the #MeToo movement, transgender rights, and the Brett Kavauagh confirmation. “I’m trying to say a lot of things,” Opie explains. “I’m talking about chaos.”
In “Self Portrait/Pervert” (1994) for example, she is shown wearing a black leather hood, her arms pierced with matching rows of needles, the word “Pervert” freshly carved above her breasts, still bleeding. The portrait paid homage to Opie’s involvement in the BDSM community, but to many, they were shocking, showing an underground countercultural movement easier to ignore. Since then, Opie has photographed a wide array of subjects, from Elizabeth Taylor’s personal belongings to California surfers and Boy Scouts, but her self-portraits remain her most iconic work.
But in 2018, the portraits pack less punch. In our selfie-obsessed media environment, the body is no longer taboo. Now, if you don’t put your confessional freak flag with all its scars, stretch marks, and fat rolls on display, you’re a Kardashian or a coward. What Opie considers subversive has also changed. In retrospect, she sees those self-portraits as overtly political—she is hesitant to use the word didactic, although she mentions it multiple times.These days, she wants to make political statements that are subtler and that she hopes will withstand the test of time. “I don’t want to make a slogan,” she says. “I want to start an aesthetic conversation about the relationship of art within political spaces.” First and foremost, the conversation must be beautiful, which The Modernist certainly is.
Who says our dreams can’t be just as lovely when they’re burned to the ground as they were in their heyday?
FROM TOP: Opie in her Los Angeles studio; still from Artist #2 (The Modernist), 2016; a detail from Mural Study #2 (The Modernist),' 2016; Mural by Stosh Fila (aka Pig Pen), 2016