Catherine Opie's shockingly raw portraits from the early '90s are what came to mind when I heard of this retrospective on view until January 7, 2009 at the Guggenheim in New York. However, seeing her oeuvre not only disabused me of any notion of rawness in her work, but also opened my eyes to the extent of her subject matter. Catherine Opie, an American classicist and stereotypical female?
Apparently, yes. This classically American photographer came into the limelight for portraying herself and her friends as gender bending homosexuals into body modification and sadomasochism. Beyond horror or titillation, Opie exposed an underrepresented class of people with political intent and humanity while exploring notions of home and family.
Home and family seem stereotypically female in a way that Opie is not often considered, given her non-traditional presentations of gender. The people we see in her works are homosexual couples posed in traditional ways, of men dressed as women and vice-versa, and of tattoos and piercings that look deliberately painful. Her presentation of them staring at the camera with a direct gaze is aggressive in a simple way. Yet stereotypically female too is the self-portrait of the artist holding her baby, similar to a Madonna and Child scene, except that the luminosity and realism exposes her scarred breast where the word "Pervert" was carved for a previous portrait.
The rawness I anticipated in her work is actually a direct portrayal of who people are with no apologies. She tends to present her subject — be it a person or a bridge — alone. Her portraits share the quality of formal composition with the gaze directed at the viewers, as well as a sense of art historical reference. For example, Opie was influenced by Hans Holbein's use of luminous color and worldly references for a series of portraits of friends. Opie often uses ornately patterned fabrics as a background. The contrived aspect of scenes and formal aspect to portraiture lend her work a theatrical quality that is in every sense neo-Baroque.
She combines the visually gorgeous with the horrific. Two clear example are the self-portraits that involve cutting into her flesh, in which she intends to shock her message into the consciousness of America. The self-portrait at left shows the artist's back cut in a childlike drawing of two figures holding hands in front of a house. The figures are two girls. In "Cutter", she takes on what it means to be a lesbian in America in the '90s by cutting a societal label, pervert, on her body. This is how Opie communicates about gender and family and home — how stereotypically domestic, no?
Not really. Opie's work doesn't subvert themes of home and family as much as redefine them. I felt her most moving work was done of a friend and performance artist Ron Athey, who had recently been diagnosed with HIV. In 2000, they created large-format Polaroids to create larger than life images of him based on his past performance pieces. One particularly strong and moving work is a lovely composition in which the precarious balance between life and death is presented as the artist lying on a bed of gold with an upraised arm from which hangs a series of needles. As image reproduction is severely kept in check, you would have to go to the Guggenheim itself to see it, or view the Selected Works of the Online Exhibition.
Series of highways, series of portraits, series of homes, series of couples/homes across the United States, Opie hammers home her message through repetition, as if demanding we look not at one individual, but many. The use of series really helps her explore subjects in a more illuminating and thoughtful way — otherwise it would be easy to dismiss one as a fluke. She presents a body of examples and says "this is America." The importance of Opie's work is in its messages about people, and, in that way, her photography is as American and compassionate as Walker Evans' photographs during the Depression were.