Catherine Opie, Mike and Sky, 1993. Chromogenic print, 20 x 16 inches (50.8 x 40.6 cm).Edition of 8. © 2008 Catherine Opie. Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Catherine Opie: American Photographer at the Guggenheim, New York
Reviewed by Jessica Lott
In the mid-1990s, Catherine Opie did a series of portraits of the gay, lesbian, transgender, and drag performance communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles—richly saturated large-format color photographs that would become her best-known work to date. Her mid-career retrospective, showing at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, through January 7, 2009, includes concurrent and recent landscape, documentary, and urban street photography; work that ranges from the curiously common and flat—the labyrinthine streets of downtown Manhattan—to the disquietingly beautiful and provocative (see the tender and nostalgic platinum prints of freeways from the mid-90s, as well as the mesmerizing Icehouses series). Still, it is the mid–late 90s portraits that have the bold-stroke of artistic power that occasion a retrospective. These photographs are the reason we are here. Traversing over ten years of shifting social terrain, they are still very charged.
Opie’s portraiture is often described as subverting our firmly held notions about what constitutes male and female, a characterization that becomes immediately evident upon stepping in the gallery. Her subjects are shot with studio lighting against bright backdrops, primary colors that enhance the multi-chromatic dress and ornament in a deliberate amplification of visual splendor and display. These bodies, with their intricate tattoos, rings, bracelets, armpit hair, piercings, press-on mustaches, goatees, fedora hats, cocktail dresses, and construction boots offer such an excess of gender-coded information that gender quickly turns in on itself and implodes, becoming, in many ways, beside the point. In the face of so many conflicting signals, helpless trackers of sexual identity will quickly toss out that script, or should.
What makes this work so definitive, though, is how it takes this notion of gender one step further. It’s the challenge it ponies up to the viewer as to what the human body really is—a decorated performative space; a readable signifier of the real internal “me”; or merely the last line of defense against the tender kernel of self. This is work that is laced with the question of what constitutes familiarity, vulnerability, and intimate knowledge when the physical plane is all that is offered up. What does it mean to look at someone? To be looked at? How does that construct who you are?
Part of the genius lies in the camera’s refusal to play voyeur. The majority of Opie’s subjects are posed, some stiffly, and they lock eyes with you. They seem aware not only of their otherness, but also of how visually seductive it is. There is something incredibly elusive about this direct, knowing, yet inquisitive gaze—it’s not defensive, exactly, but it speaks to the complicated nature of self-defense. It’s an invitation with a lot of restrictions attached—the self-protecting idea that just by looking at me, you won’t really know me. True intimacy, the complete acceptance of another individual, is complex; it requires several stages of initiation and exposure—the sexualized body, meant to be the ultimate revelation, can sometimes just be first base.
Opie is a photographer who captures the diversity of under-represented communities—her Domestic series, in which she spent three months driving across the U.S. in an RV photographing lesbian couples in their homes, is one of the strongest in the show. Yet she makes it apparent that this community-building is a tricky proposition. Even at its most functional, community, as another layer of selfhood, is frequently imperiled by conflicting motives and value systems.
In her more recent series In and Around Home, the focus is on Opie’s own domestic framework, her family and her neighborhood in Los Angeles. The style is looser and more candid. But unlike Annie Leibovitz’s photographs of family and friends, which show a clear division between the private life and the public, the two worlds merge for Opie. In a sense, the political is always impinging on the personal; it comes through in the countless ways media is condensed and transported into our homes daily. Alongside tender photographs of her son, Oliver, wearing a tutu, or playing in the bathtub, there are Polaroids of the television screen—President Bush giving a speech, Terri Schiavo, Judge Roberts being sworn in. There are photographs of parades and protests down the street. This is the country Oliver is growing up in—that we all are, no matter how divorced we may feel from mainstream culture. There is no escaping the physical reality of ourselves, and our gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance do contextualize us, politicize us, and define us in this country. Opie shows us that how we group is important—it is within communities that we realize the unique trajectories of our lives. These communities are also a means for protecting and preserving self-expression, which seems to me to be one of the exhibition’s most pressing and timely preoccupations.
Catherine Opie. Oliver in a Tutu, 2004. Chromogenic print, 24 x 20 inches (61 x 50.8 cm).
Catherine Opie, Divinity Fudge, 1997, Chromogenic print, 60 x 30 inches
(152.4 x 76 .2 cm) Edition of 8. © 2008 Catherine Opie.
courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Jessica Lott’s first book, the novella Osin, was published in April 2007, and won the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University and an M.A. in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis. She works as an editor for an arts institution in New York City, as well as freelancing as an editorial consultant for galleries, museums, and art publications. She writes both fiction and non-fiction, and her art reviews have appeared in NY Arts magazine. She is currently finishing her first novel. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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