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Some people just want to see the world burn. In 2014, an arsonist burned to the ground an unfinished portion of the Mediterranean-style, ugly AF Da Vinci apartments in downtown Los Angeles. Local investigators assumed it was a crime (rather than an accident) because the buildings and their developer were universally reviled. 1
What if the motives were reversed? What if a pyromaniacal lust motivated an arsonist to destroy what they admired rather than detested? In Catherine Opie’s recent exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in Chelsea, The Modernist, Opie used the archetype of the arsonist to create a mood of ambivalence as a thoroughly modern condition. The result was a film pulled apart and overemphasized through its repeating parts.
The Modernist, first shown at Regen Projects in L.A. in early 2018, was an exhibition in two parts: a series of photographic prints and a sprawling collage upstairs and a film downstairs. In the upstairs gallery, the photographs told a nonlinear story of an arsonist. The character was played by Opie’s friend and frequent subject, San Francisco-based artist Pig Pen, a.k.a. Stosh Fila. The sequential portraits showed Fila as a budding pyromaniac in watery black and white pigment prints. We saw Fila outside Lowe’s with equipment purchases in Arsonist (The Modernist) (all works 2016); Fila hiding in a pile of manicured rocks along the flat lines of the Chemosphere (a stilted and octagonal L.A. house once described as “the most modern home built in the world”) with gas can in tow in Chemosphere #1; Fila’s reflection radiating in double on the glass panes of L.A.’s Sheats-Goldstein house in Sheats-Goldstein #2 (The Modernist).
But Opie’s true subject was the flame. In each shot, a single source of light, whether from matchstick, light bulb, or the skyline, acted as what Roland Barthes called the punctum—an element in the photograph that jumps out at the viewer. In five prints, Fila’s thumbs were shown pinching the wooden stick of a lit match close up and cocked at angles as if to present the wondrous glory of fire. While the 20 sequential images abstracted Opie’s overall concept, the payoff waited in the darkened room on the basement level.
The film, also titled The Modernist, was composed of 852 still, sequential photographs set in the style of a French photo-roman film. Opie’s film frames destruction as a means of avenging the sins of capital-M Modernism, turning its case study houses into the effigy for the era’s bad politics. Yet, The Modernist read more as novelty a la Charlie Chaplin—a portraiture of psychotic pleasure and madcappery—rather than a cautionary tale.
The movement of the film ticked along like ametronome, each image leading the viewer along through a silent narrative. We saw Fila burning maquettes, then outfitting their stylish modern room with flowers, sneaking onto properties to start fires, then picking up the next day’s paper to ensure that their success has been catalogued. Here, Opie attempted to make a moralized dichotomy between oppressed and oppressor and set out to invert the power dynamic.
The result was too canny to shock. The firestarter film was more a sleeper than an incendiary tale of good versus evil. Mural by Stosh Fila (aka Pig Pen), the collage from the first floor made a cameo in the film, as Fila burned through modernist properties, then paired images of each house with clips from news reports of the arson. Words from the newspaper articles were chopped and layered out of context (troubled, guarded, plight), which, paired with an overlay of hand-painted and oil stick red and orange flames, evoked a campy aesthetic: Barbara Kruger meets True Detective. Head- lines such as HOT PROPERTY and SCORCHED EARTH glued over glossy magazine cut-outs of celebrity homes were as kitschy as they were charged. Mural in a sense was a prop plucked from a cinematic landscape then hung in the gallery, a gesture akin to merchandising. Similarly, the accompanying light boxes featured photo- graphs of the collage close-up and excerpted on the basement level (Mural Study #1, #3, #4) and felt like afterthoughts or commemorative images from a movie set. Though Fila’s vigilante arson was meant to even the spectrum of class, Opie’s (or the gallery’s) formal choices distracted. We were brought back to the salable art object in the end.
How the rest of the world pictures Los Angeles is akin to a shopworn Joan Didion essay—having never felt the heat of a wildfire or the slap of the Santa Ana winds, city mice can only dream of tropical Armageddon from a distance. If a place is topically known by its icons and their accompanying aesthetics, mid-century modern design might as well be shorthand for Southern California. Outsiders are comfortable with an incomplete vision of Los Angeles, and Opie’s ambivalent and psychotic Modernist added predictable lore to the pile of Los Angeles fables. (To see Fila’s bare tattooed arms glinting in the California sunlight while sunken in the middle of a dreary New York City winter would have been effect enough.)
In the end, according to the police report, the Da Vinci arsonist’s motivation was abstract revenge against the system in general for the murder of black teenager Mike Brown. The off-the-streets, castle-style architecture of the Da Vinci apartments symbolized to the arsonist all that is oppressive in this world: the ugliness of gentrification, the inaccessibility of wealth, and the cruelty of greed.
Opie’s arsonist plotted with the precision of a sniper. If midcentury modernist politics delivered the world to the mess it’s in now, why not reduce its hallmarks to ash as reparations? To burn the pristine hallmarks of the midcentury’s Modernism— a time of extreme simplification and whitewashing in favor of making clean lines out of sociopolitical stress— is a way to purge an era’s sins. Not all stories need endings—The Modernist was fragmentary and ultimately inconclusive, an apt metaphor for our off-kilter and indecisive era.
Angella d’Avignon is a writer in Los Angeles.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 15.