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 â dress hitched up over his waist, a string of pearls gliding gracefully out of his bare ass â 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 â a few syringes, a little freshly carved flesh â still had the power to make me uncomfortable, and really, really sad.
Catherine Opie: American Photographer
Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave, through January 7th