Art Catch: Catherine Opie

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11/25/2008 1:30 PM |

Art Catch is a weekly online column by The L‘s Patricia Milder.

I’m not gonna lie. Some of the images that photographer Catherine Opie has captured over the years definitely cross my how-much-is-too-much line regarding body art and sexual deviancy. Looking at photographs such as Self Portrait/Cutting (1993) – Opie with leather mask on, the bloody word "pervert" carved into her chest, at least 20 syringes pierced through the skin of her arms – makes me feel downright morally conservative. And that is at least partly Opie’s point. "American Photographer," a mid career retrospective at the Guggenheim, deals in honesty and confrontation. Unless you’re seasoned in the art of boundary crossing S&M play, you’ll probably have to give your oh-so-open-minded, non-judgmental self a good square look.

Opie is interested in the idea of a new American landscape, both
politically and also quite literally, which is why her series have
ranged from photographs of surfers, mini-malls and freeways to the
domestic lesbian American home to portraits of transgendered subjects
at all stages of transformation. It is almost shocking how mundane and
empty of punch her suburban and city landscapes are. The ideas in them
always seem to point back to the portrait subjects that she is most
famous for, and surely this is intentional. To lend example, to create
breathing room, to show range and depth and scope of interest as well
as over-normalcy alongside hidden angles of America, these plain
inanimate images are certainly necessary.

With her depictions of the American mini-mall, Opie deals reverently
with something almost universally dismissed as ugly and considered
representative of a certain overall architectural downturn. Clearly
this is a nod to the way we disregard leather and S&M subcultures,
which in formalized portraits she re-frames with dignity. Her "Homes"
series looks at houses built in the 1950s and 60s that are composites
of historical architectural styles, referencing the ancient tribal body
modification techniques brought together on and through the skin of her
friends. But even without these comparisons, the weight Opie’s iconic
portraits hold is enough to color everything else she photographs. The
affect is similar to Sally Mann’s position: although she shoots
primarily landscapes these days, Mann’s images will always carry the
memory of the famous, controversial photos of her naked children.

Ice houses and surfers line the walls in a fifth floor space, creating
a meditative room with a feeling of waiting and quietude. A floor
above, "In and Around Home" includes a series of personal photographs
of Opie’s children as well her neighborhood, which are interspersed
with Polaroid images of news shows on television. Contrasts make
obvious political statements: her son in a tutu and tiara, George Bush
smiling, New Orleans under water. In a small back enclave, there are
large floor to ceiling Polaroid pictures, taken with the worlds biggest
Polaroid camera, of the performance artist Ron Athey in all his
tattooed, scarred and pierced glory. In Opie’s vision, Bush on
television can fit in the palm of your hand while Athey in 8-inch heels
– dress hitched up over his waist, a string of pearls gliding
gracefully out of his bare ass – is larger than life.

Opie has said that she imagines her photographs will be important in
100 years as historical documents. I can just see myself then: 126-years-old and remembering a time when these images – a few syringes, a
little freshly carved flesh – still had the power to make me
uncomfortable, and really, really sad.

Catherine Opie: American Photographer
Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave, through January 7th