Catherine Opie

Guggenheim Museum, New York

Through January 7, 2009
by Quinn Latimer

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      Catherine Opie
      Bo, 1991
      Chromogenic print and wood frame with metal nameplate
      17 x 22 inches
      Edition of 8
      © 2008 Catherine Opie. Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

      View Gallery

      Last spring, at a concert in Brooklyn, a button on a woman’s bag caught my eye. Round, with a red background, it showed a smiling nuclear family: two parents, two young daughters, their arms affectionately wound round one another. What gave the button its impact was this: the family was black, and the words arching over them read “America’s Next First Family.” Seeing Barack Obama in an intimate familial setting, with his wife, his two daughters and those words—which invariably evoke a sea of old white men in flag pins with their pale families—was a shock that gave me tingles. That initial jolt spoke volumes about the conventional imagery that bespeaks the American family. Long under the influence of a Norman Rockwell/Newt Gingrich hangover, portraits of domesticity in this country have consistently hewn close to a heteronormative WASP-y ideal that rarely reflects what this country actually looks like.

      It was with great pleasure then, and eerie timing, that Catherine Opie’s first mid-career retrospective opened at the Guggenheim Museum just as Mr. Obama, and his family, began packing for that very White House—and, with the many photo ops that would follow, began to indelibly change perceptions of what an American family does indeed look like. Opie’s elegant, rigorous and socially engaged work—with its emphasis on capturing America’s gay and transgender communities and the multivalent households they keep—has done much of the same work that Obama’s family is doing now: showing what American families really look like today, in the 21st century.

      The very title of Opie’s survey does similar political work. With its numerous and nuanced portraits of drag kings, S&M players, performance artists, lesbian families and surfers, Catherine Opie: American Photographer enlarges the playing field of the American social documentary tradition. The survey names these figures Americans right off the bat, and Opie’s work gives respect to these often unseen citizens through regal art-historical compositions and meticulous technique. Indeed, the theme of American communities unites the exhibition, traveling as it does through the L.A.-based photographer’s early portraits, self-portraits, domestic scenes and recent landscapes and architectural series, all of which underscore the plurality of our nation’s communal life.

      The photographer’s interest in communities, particularly marginalized ones, first asserted itself in the work she exhibited in her 1991 New York gallery show, Being and Having, which fittingly opens her Guggenheim survey. In these portraits, lesbian drag kings in full regalia are posed against a flat goldenrod background, with their nicknames (Papa Bear, Whitey, Chief) engraved on small plates affixed to the bottoms of the frames, in a coy nod to classical portraiture. Pig Pen (1991), shows a woman in a full Fu Manchu moustache and one hoop earring, her dark eyes narrowed, her expression enigmatic and transfixing. The consistency of the yellow backdrop and the fake moustaches play counterpoint to the diversity of faces and expressions donned. Ersatz “male” guises assumed, each subject stands out as an individual while clearly enjoying the company of a like-minded community.

      Likewise, Opie’s Self-Portraits from a few years later, perhaps her best-known works, posit her body against a series of regal, jewel-tone fabrics. In the famous Self-Portrait/Pervert (1994), she appears in bondage gear—pierced, hooded, and scarred. Ten years later, she appears in a similar composition in Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004), this time feeding her son Oliver, the scar writ across her chest now only faintly visible above her cherubic baby boy. An earlier self-portrait from 1993 proves prescient of the nursing shot and also of the domestic scenes across America onto which she would later train her lens. In Self-Portrait/Cutting, the artist’s back is to us. Cut into it is a crude, raw, child-like drawing of two women holding hands, a house and wispy clouds cavorting behind. In these images, Opie manages to effortlessly conflate apparent opposites: S&M and the desire for domestic bliss, bodily transgressions and modification and childrearing. Her art-historical strategies echo this fusion, bringing together classical composition and contemporary identity politics, allowing each to engage and shed light, and dignity, on the other.

      In addition to her acclaimed portraiture, Opie has steadily worked on series of cities and their architecture. These photographs are noticeably absent of bodies, but instantly assert themselves as the landscapes in which many of her sitters must live and work. And it is here, in her sprawling retrospective, that the shear breadth of her talent emerges. A series of L.A. freeways from the mid-90s, shot in a muted yet majestic black and white as though from behind a scrim, are monumental in a way that belies the rather diminutive size of the images. The platinum prints, with their swooping planes of concrete, could be studies for Serras or modernist architectural photography at its finest. Color images of wealthy and well-fortified Beverly Hills homes and black-and-white shots of Chicago at night also intrigue, but the room of landscapes that trumps these works holds two very different series, installed across from each other in a mirror-like stand-off.

      On one side of the gallery, Opie’s snow-swept Icehouses (2001) fill a wall with blizzards of white, out of which distinct horizons of color emerge in the shape of temporary icehouses in primary colors. Across the way, the photographer’s recent Surfers (2003) fill the opposite wall with the foggy bottle greens and blues of the Pacific, as tiny surfers, alone or en mass, rest on their boards at the break, waiting for the next set to roll in. In both series, the photographer waited for moments when her image would become obliterated by blizzard or coastal gloom, eventually bleaching out all figures and signifiers. In these images, as in her portraits, a dominant characteristic seems to be stillness. Pausing and focusing for a moment—on a person, on a building, on a frozen lake—Opie acknowledges a grace and dignity that such subjects are rarely conferred.

      Opie’s most recent body of work, In and Around Home (2004-5), is less quietly formal and studied, but brimming with a more off-hand beauty and affection. Here, portraits of her son (in a tutu, dappled by light) and partner are juxtaposed with images of their South Central neighborhood: MLK Day marches, gang vigils and TV news reporters filing stories. A series of Polaroids begun in 2004 accompany these photographs. Taken off the TV screen of nightly news programs, the Polaroids depict Bush wagging a finger, a “Dyke” judge, John Kerry debating or New Orleans street signs. However, the survey does not include the series that Opie just made with her last rolls of Polaroid film, which documents the most recent election cycle. Some of these depict Obama himself, caught in still moments of immense portent, as he fills the nightly news with images that instantly speak to new era of American politics.

      At his acceptance speech on November 4, a little more than a month and a half after Opie’s survey opened at the Guggenheim, Obama spoke of the America that elected him, a “United Sates of America” that includes “young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled.” After his speech, his family—America’s new first family—came out to meet him. And like Opie’s early portraits of women in drag, tattooed and pierced, which were shocking 20 years ago and are now sublimated into the larger American culture, Obama’s family is no longer inconceivable as the national emblem of an American family. Opie’s socially committed, formally rigorous oeuvre shows us that images are what we make of them. By making hers, she has proved politically deft and socially prescient—and enlarged our vision of what we look like and who we are.

      Quinn Latimer is a poet and art critic based in New York and Basel, Switzerland. Her poems have appeared in the Paris Review, Boston Review and Prairie Schooner, among other journals, and her art and literary reviews regularly appear in Modern Painters, where she is an associate editor.

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