Whitehot Magazine

February 2011, Catherine Opie @ The Portland Art Museum

Catherine Opie, Jenny (Bed), 2009
Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Catherine Opie
Portland Art Museum
1219 SW Park Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97205
Until Jan 7, 2011

As far as I know, Catherine Opie always works in series, her photographs addressing a typically “This American Life” range of subject matter. The content is largely amenable to standards of photojournalism and contemporary portraiture (though a noted exception is her most famous work, a portrait of the artist from behind with a house, two women holding hands, and a cloud overhead bloodily etched into her back.) Opie’s relatively “mainstream” formal aesthetic, however, has enabled her to slip a range of “edgy” subjects under the door—mainly portraits of leather dykes, transmen, and others deemed “sexual outlaws” in America’s puritanical culture. It is interesting to consider that her first major success was a series of portraits of individuals from San Francisco’s queer community in the 1990s, if for no other reason that it spawns the realization that, less than twenty years on, the notion of a unified queer community has become all but obsolete.

This has fed into her less provocative work, including an early series of highway overpasses, pedantically uniting her with the West Coast conceptual serialism of Ed Ruscha (a la Twentysix Gasoline Stations) and James Benning (13 Lakes and 10 Skies), and, more recently, a series of photographs of Lake Michigan recently selected by the Obamas to hang in the White House.

But portraiture is what Opie has traditionally done best, and the exhibition in Portland highlights this facet of her oeuvre in the form of ten photographs, all dating from the last thirteen years. Half of the work on display is taken from the Girlfriends series of 2009, in which the subject is presented against a plain colored background. Among them, we’re treated to a majestic Eileen Myles positioned on a stool against a burgundy and a stolid J.D. Samson against purple-blue. I suspect that these works will be of most interest to people already familiar with the subjects. They are nice, but not Opie’s finest work.

The five other portraits are more successful. Jenny (Bed), 2009, is all black-and-white minimalist chic in color, starring an attractive young Asian butch, model/actress Jenny Shimizu (ex-lover of Madonna and Angelina Jolie), in wifebeater and leather pants adorned on a crisp bed. Her right hand dangles in her crotch, while her left arm is stretched plaintively across the pillows.

Opie gives us a similarly restrained palette in her two portraits of L-Word actress Katherine Moennig. In one, she blows a cigarette ring, while the other, perhaps the only photograph in the show that offers us more than a vague whiff of mysterious ambiguity, depicts the actress hiding her face behind her arm and a pair of oversize sunglasses.

One of Opie’s favorite subjects, Idexa, appears in two photographs from 1998 and 2008. Here, the color field opens up to rich greens and blues, the roadside foliage matching Idexa’s tribal tattoos.

The work is all very adept, but doesn’t bother to push the envelope. The problem with photography in the digital era is that it doesn’t have to do very much to look good. Opie’s photographs look good, but what do they tell us about their subjects? One gets the sneaking suspicion that it’s been a while since Opie has asked herself this question.


Kate, 2007
Chromogenic print
Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Kate (Bike), 2007
Chromogenic print
Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles


Travis Jeppesen

Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio. 

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