not unlike the eakins exhibit that is its next door neighbor at lacma, the catherine opie show of large-format chromogenic photographs concerns itself with sports, in this case she has focused entirely on high school football.
opie’s jounalistic eye takes the viewer on a journey of exploration; one that i believe is echoed in the stances & facial expressions of her subjects in the portraits on view. the documentary aspect of her eye is also apparent in the long-view landscapes included in this exhibit.
but let’s discuss impressions. if, like us, you come to this exhibit from the darkly lit (& darkly painted walls) of the eakins show, you will be blinded by the brightness of the colors. the galleries are skylit (clerestory windows), the walls are painted snow white & the colors, the colors are polyester brilliant; the football jerseys of the players day-glo in comparison to the somber aesthetic of eakins’ costumes & nudes.
my companions offered me an interesting perspective on the images of the young men captured by opie. parents of a grown male child (an only child), s., the mother, immediately started parsing the looks of the subjects. whereas i was struck by composition, color & form and how they were communicating opie’s vision, s. was commenting on their fragility that they were desperately trying to mask through stance & facial expression, “but you can see how delicate, how fearful, they are just by their skin, their posture, their eyes,” she opined.
this conversation then made us realize that these are the faces (and bodies) of the young men who are defending our country right now. when you read the obituaries of the war dead, they are invariably just a few years removed from the glory they may have had on this high school football field. the poignancy of this realization, for us at least, brought home the inequities & folly of war. (football is war.)
opie’s landscapes, peopled in the lower third of the image, dramatically defined the fragile nature of life. the comparison of our small lives against the grandeur & power of nature was shocking & shattering. the subject in these photos is only tangentially the football players/game in progress; it is the long view (not a pun), it is the omnipotent view, it is man’s folly that he can control the passage of time, that he can control nature itself (even human nature is impossibly weak.)
& finally we talked about how the pretty white boys’ lives were pre-ordained in spite of their warrior stance, their lives would unfold in the most predictable of ways. the high school & college. the bmoc attitude. the legacy of success handed down by their fathers (senior to junior to III) & yet & yet, if you look close enough, really look at their eyes, their hands, their shoulders, the weight of the stance (in this photo “dusty” has his weight on one foot) you will see & perhaps smell, the fear.
we left this exhibit (& the eakins) feeling we had seen a history of sport in america, but that the artists had given us much, much more; that for the past couple of hours, we had been witness to the lives, that we had shared in the glories & defeats of these american lives.