Progression of Art
In Bo, we see a young Catherine Opie staring intensely back at the viewer. She is wearing a fake mustache and carries the both comical and unnerving expression of "a serial killer from the Midwest who's a used aluminum-siding salesman".
The mustard-yellow background echoes Hans Holbein portrait paintings, as well as more recent Pop Art aesthetics. The image presents Opie's signature style; the highly focused, studio print of a human subject against a bright background as she merges past aesthetics with present politics. It is a device to add gravity to the image; to confer authority to the marginalized.
The Being and Having series consists of 13 photographs of Opie herself (as in Bo) and her lesbian friends playing with exaggerated, camp signs of masculinity - mostly fake moustaches and beards. The work is a playful representation of Judith Butler's ideas that gender is something that is performed, and layered, as opposed to a natural thing we are born with. The photograph also documents popular forms of dressing up and male drag amongst Opie's own lesbian community.
The piece subverts traditional visions of female beauty presented in art, by allowing the subject (also the artist) to have agency in looking straight at the viewer, and by covering 'beautiful', 'feminine' features with fake moustaches and beards. "My women embody space, they look back at you, they look off at you. I've always treated women in relationship to holding a sort of power within the frame and a lot of male photographers photograph the woman only as object."
In creating Bo as an alter ego, Opie subverts the traditional male gaze, in which men create 'beautiful' images of women for other men to look at. Instead, Opie looks straight at the viewer out of the picture. She takes on the role of photographer and subject, creating an ambiguous image of masculinity, in place of the expected feminine subject.
Photographic Print - Regen Projects - Los Angeles
Self Portrait - Pervert
In this unsettling image we see a topless Opie, sitting up straight, facing the camera with her hands crossed. Her chest is bleeding and her arms are pierced 46 times from the shoulder down to the wrist with two-inch needles. She is dressed in leather and a gimp mask hides her face. Scratched into her sternum is the word "pervert", embellished beneath.
Catherine Opie was an active member of leather, kink, and BDSM scenes, denigrated by some members of the gay community. Her connection with the BDSM scene was as political as it was sexual. "We talked philosophy in those dungeons. And for me it was a way of coming to terms with my own body," she said.
The piece is deliberately confrontational, using blood and the word 'pervert' - often ascribed to queer people just for being queer - to challenge the American Christian Right and the Congressmen and women who were campaigning against funding AIDS research at the time of this photograph's first display at the Whitney Biennial in 1995.
In Bo (1991) the artist looks directly out of the picture to the viewer. In Self Portrait - Pervert (1994), her gaze is completely absent, hidden under a black gimp mask. This forces a viewer to read her identity only as it is inscribed on her body, in blood - mirroring the way people judge whole communities without understanding individual people and identities. The work is at once a celebration of sadomasochistic practices within the lesbian community, and a critique of the way this community is vilified by outsiders as faceless, homogenous, and dangerous.
Art critic Linda Yablonsky said in 2008: "Sensational content combined with formal virtuosity has set Opie's work apart since her breakthrough at the 1995 Whitney Biennial. Women's bodies have been the site of political discourse in art across the ages, and Opie's skillful technical ability paired with her thought-provoking subject matter brings this conversation into a new light."
The piece disturbs Opie now, and she says she struggles to look at it.
Photographic print - Guggenheim Museum, New York
Self Portrait Nursing
In Self Portrait Nursing we see Opie using the autobiographical approach once again to challenge gender and bodily norms, but also to reveal something deep and personal. In this Madonna-and-Child tribute, we see the top of Opie's unclothed body filling the frame as she breastfeeds her naked son. The image of their bodies is sumptuous, fleshy, and tender, and they are set against an ornate red and gold background in tribute to Renaissance art. In the past she has used blood to make a point, but in this image the color red is darker, comforting, and womblike.
The subject of the photograph, Opie herself, is in her 40s, butch, tattooed, topless - challenging preconceptions about what motherhood should look like. Her scars are visible on her skin but the blood is gone. This time she is not looking at the camera - all her attention is on her young son as he gazes back into her eyes. Her breasts, full of milk and being happily clutched by her hungry baby, provide a sharp contrast to the airbrushed sexualized images shown in commercial photography today. At the bottom of the frame are Opie's hands, broad and strong, capably enveloping her young child's body. It is a glorious rebuke to traditional images of maternity and of the societal expectation that women exhibit "modesty" in nursing.
Considered alongside Opie's other self portraits, Self Portrait Nursing demonstrates the range of possibilities, desires, and uses for the artists own body, and for lesbian and women's bodies more generally.
Photographic Print - Guggenheim Museum, New York
Opie released this series in 2003, depicting the community of Malibu surfers from her hometown Los Angeles. In this image we see a band of surfers, so small in the frame they could be seabirds. They are bobbing quietly in a calm ocean, waiting for a wave, while some appear to be talking, and others sit alone. There is a gently rippling sea in the foreground while in the middle of the frame a hazy horizon melts the ocean with the sky.
The figures wait patiently in a muted sunlight against a blue grey horizon. The natural frame for these images would be the landscape, but Opie's use of the portrait format personifies the landscape, binding it with its subjects.
At first this piece looks like a departure from her other works. But on closer look, we see Opie returning to her trope of deconstructing images that have become iconic, while also documenting close-knit subcultural communities. She said: "The iconic image of the surfer is the action shot. Just like the action shot of the football player. But if we take it as landscape, then how do we think of it in a different way? Can it be meditative? Can we acknowledge space in a different way?"
There are no waves in these images, no action. The surfers in this portrait shift from the brave, strong and daring men traditionally imagined by sports documentary photographers, towards demonstrating more traditionally feminine ideals of patience, community, and stillness.
"Upending the heroic vision of surfers as daredevils suspended on the face of towering breakers, the artist focused on a seemingly marginal aspect of the sport, the long periods between waves that foster the conditions in which surfers bond as a surrogate family," said Douglas Fogle, Chief Curator at the Hammer Museum.
Photographic print - Guggenheim Museum, New York
In this photograph from the High School Football series we see a young, muscular man in full football gear staring back at the camera. There is symmetry about the image as he stands straight, his arms hanging by his side with the backs of his broad hands exposed to the camera. His face is lit against the twilight and he wears an intensely focused expression.
In this picture the artist is challenging the viewer to really question what we see, what we perceive, and the gulf between the two. She wants us to ask how sure we are about what we believe to be true, presenting young football players as vulnerable, discrete individuals, as opposed to gangs of violent jocks. "There's a certain kind of equality I'm trying to create, which is what I believe American democracy is about. If I were to pass judgment on, say, football players - that they were the asshole kids who used to beat me up in high school - that's not really true."
She continues: "So many of these young men are going to go off to war, and some of the ones I photographed did go off to war and they did die... As a culture, we load the politics of masculinity and power and all these things onto them."
Once again, by inviting us to look beyond the uniform and the appearance, Opie asks us to examine with compassion the societal expectations that can crush: "The same way AIDS devastated the gay and lesbian community, war is devastating this generation."
Opie's anthropological exploration of American identity here shows that despite our differences, and the many varying ways in which we chose to present ourselves, people are inextricably linked; our desire to fit in and our vulnerabilities amongst wider society make us much more similar than perhaps we would choose to believe.
Photographic Print - Los Angeles County Museum of Art
David Hockney (2017) is one of a series of portraits Opie has taken of the art world's contemporary greats. We see the subject, David Hockney, in his trademark spectacles, wearing comfortable clothes, hands clasped on his lap in an unremarkable chair. The background is completely black, and the darkness spreads across his body in patches reminiscent of baroque portraits, a device designed to get the viewer to slow down and properly absorb the image.
"It's important to bear witness, to spend some time...I love the paint splatters on his trousers and the hearing aid. The bulge of the wallet in the pocket," she says of the photograph of Hockney, whose own portraits of bohemians such as Ossie Clark helped establish his reputation. Opie wanted to capture artists - portrait painters especially - from different generations.
She added: "These images are meant to be very formal, to hold somebody. It's important to me that these portraits go beyond the idea of the snapshot, as if the black backdrop were the subconscious. They are very controlled portraits, highly staged, to the point where I even place their hands where I want them to be, and I tell them where to look, and position their heads and eyes."
In these images Opie is determined to highlight the difference between a character and a caricature. The photographs are uncompromising in showing the frailties and imperfections of artists' bodies, and help us to see the real humans behind the famous signatures. Just as members of the queer, football, or any communites can be sidelined and stereotyped, the lauded subjects of these portraits are vulnerable to press glare. So, in presenting these dark and dramatic shots, Opie uses her technical skill to bring these creatives' physical beings into clear focus and sharp relief.
Photographic Print - Regen Projects, Los Angeles