Catherine Opie's work is difficult to pin down. The 51-year-old photographer and UCLA professor has spent the past few decades making portraits of all sorts of people -- friends in the San Francisco queer community, surfers, high school football players. At the same time, she has also created hauntingly beautiful landscapes of soaring Los Angeles freeways, tiny Minnesota icehouses, and sunsets on the open ocean. She has documented lesbian families, a Boy Scout Jamboree, and President Obama's first inauguration. She is, as the title of her 2008 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York notes, an American photographer.
It's an identity that Opie embraces, although one that is increasingly rare in contemporary art, says Britt Salvesen, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art who worked with Opie on a 2010 exhibition. Salvesen notes that many artists these days use photography without engaging with its history, and without identifying as photographers. By contrast, she says, "Cathy has really held the line, sustaining the specificity of photography without being nostalgic or retrograde about it."
Her ability to merge references to photographic history with the stuff of contemporary life has distinguished Opie's work throughout her career. Her early portraits of gender-bending, pierced and tattooed friends have been compared to the spare compositions of early 20th century German photographer August Sander. Her landscapes, locating the sublime in freeways and mini-malls, recall the stately grandeur of 19th century California master Carleton Watkins' photographs of Yosemite.
Opie's varied work also reflects an older notion of what it means to be a photographer in an age of niche markets. "We're in such an age of specialization and branding," says Salvesen, adding that artists are often encouraged to make the same work over and over again. "Back in the earlier days of photography, there would've been an openness to experimentation and exploration of the capacities of the medium," she says, "So that's something she sustains, and then she resists the specialization in a way."
But even considering the diversity of her previous subjects, Opie has recently embarked on what is perhaps an even more radical shift, currently debuting two new bodies of work at Regen Projects in Hollywood.
Like her earlier works, the new pieces are divided between portraiture and landscape. But the tone and approach are remarkably different. "I had really been photographing America in relationship to documenting in the past decade," she says, "I've always done that, but I just needed to just go back within myself." The new images, she says, reflect her own "internal space" and are intended to function more allegorically.
The portraits, which are all situated against rich, black backgrounds, depict close friends and family members posed in tableaux that Opie orchestrated. She also often selected and purchased their clothing to get the specific effect she wanted. That effect turned out to be strikingly akin to European Baroque portraiture, with its emphasis on the dramatic play of light and shadow. Opie has even framed some of the prints in ovals that evoke cameos or an earlier era of aristocratic or religious portraiture. For the artist, the almost theatrical language of Baroque portraiture speaks to an internal state that is dream-like and capable of conveying desire. It's an apt reference; the Baroque era represented a move away from the classicism of the Renaissance toward the expression of more individual and subjective states of being. "I'm really talking about this internal place that we inhabit as people, which is hard to try to figure out how to do in images," Opie says.
However, in a typical Opie twist, the subjects are undeniably contemporary, and quietly strange. They include fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, of Rodarte, kneeling and whispering over an embroidered blood splatter, and the artist's son Oliver, holding a pet mouse in a pose reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine." There is a beautiful image of artist Mary Kelly, who seems just about to release her perennially perfect up-do, and a portrait of performance artist Julie Tolentino and Pigpen, a long-time Opie subject, sharing a kiss as blood drips down their chins. This is not your typical art historical drama.
"I don't want this body of work just to be about history painting," says Opie, although she is also interested in the way in which art historical images often function as allegories for spiritual or emotional states. "How do we do that with people that are in my life today?" she asks, "What is a new allegory versus an allegory that is based on Catholicism? We don't represent for the church anymore, so what can I represent?"
This commitment to exploring an interior world makes the works undeniably personal. One particularly striking piece depicts a full-length view of Opie's chiseled trainer, David. Nude, he serenely holds his bloody genitals in both hands. Opie admits that the work can be read as a castration, but she was actually interested in exploring her relationship to her trainer, with whom she has been working for the past three years. "Not only is he transforming my body in this like really intense way in terms of how we're working out together, but during this time period I went through menopause and stopped bleeding; so he's bleeding for me," she says. The work captures not only the physical intimacy of their relationship, but quietly (and perhaps even playfully) challenges our assumptions about what images of bloody male parts imply.
This series, Opie says, is "probably the most personal body of work I've done, except for the self-portraits." She's referring to two images created early in her career in which she appears with pictures and text carved into her own flesh, and a third in which she nurses her young son. Those images, she notes, were about expressing a certain identity. The image carved into her bare back in "Self-Portrait/Cutting" from 1993 is a child-like rendering of a lesbian couple holding hands in front of a house. Created after a painful breakup, it expressed a kind of longing for comfort and domesticity, albeit in a cruelly self-damaging way. The other "cutting" image, "Self-Portrait/Pervert" from 1994 was a response to the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s, during which artists who challenged the heterosexual, white, and upper class biases of the art world were censored and reviled by right-wing politicians and fundamentalist religious leaders. For this image, Opie wore a featureless black leather mask, punctured both arms with numerous needles, and inscribed the word "Pervert" across her chest in a curling, decorative script. Far from easy to look at, these works are allegories for social and political repression.
They were also contemporaneous with Opie's regal portraits of her friends in the queer, S/M and performance art communities, a project that had a political as well as personal exigency. "I was so utterly describing in every single detail the flesh of my queer friends at a time in which society really was against us," she says. Although they served an important function of representation, those portraits were sometimes too much, even for their subjects. "Most of my friends didn't want to live with the images that I made of them," she says, "They thought they were too intense, too real."
The third self-portrait provides a stark contrast, creating an almost Madonna-like image of the artist nursing her son, with the scars from the "Pervert" inscription still visible on her chest. This contrast highlights a major feature of Opie's work: these two things -- self-mutilation and motherhood -- need not be polar opposites. In fact, even in her more documentary work, Opie has managed to find moments of accord in disparate subject matter. Her images of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival -- people hanging out next to tents in the woods -- don't look that different from her pictures of a Boy Scout Jamboree. Although they reflect very different political orientations and values, these two events perform the same function: they create and cement notions of community. Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, described Opie's career as "contrapuntal" in a 2009 Artforum article. "For every work that images and imagines community as inclusive, there is another that addresses the affect of outsiderness," she wrote.
With her new body of portraits, Opie appears to be delineating the highly introspective contours of a much smaller, personal community. Yet, she says, there is a difference: "This is no longer about the specificity of identity." Instead, it's about "these moments and things coming together in relationship to the people who come in and out of my life," she says, adding that these works, unlike her early portraits, have no political agenda.
Although this more personal focus may be a departure for Opie, she continues to work in a contrapuntal mode. Alongside the portraits, she has created a series of landscapes, or at least what might be called landscapes. Each of these images was taken at an iconic natural site, but the images are so out of focus that it is impossible to identify the location. This technique contrasts directly with her previous, exquisitely detailed and precisely composed landscapes. Instead, it captures the impossibility of truly seeing nature. "At this point, most nature is experienced in relationship to a person holding up their cell phone to it and taking a picture and then tweeting that they were there," she says, "By just racking the focus in the lens I'm again asking on a cognitive level for you to fill in the blanks of the experience of nature, or the idea of nature that isn't obtainable in the way that we work as humans anymore."
Familiarity breeds numbness. Picture postcard images are so ubiquitous, we can't appreciate the magnificence of what they capture. The abstract landscapes grew out of a residency in New Zealand, where rainbows were a daily occurrence. "Everywhere I looked in New Zealand there was always rainbows," she says, "And so it was like, how do you even take a rainbow photograph anymore?" By literally turning nature into an abstraction, by making it somewhat strange and unfamiliar, Opie hopes to also restore our experience of wonder and awe.
This emphasis on the act of seeing has always been a part of the photographer's work. "There's a connection back to the history of landscape photography and also that moment of witnessing that is really important to Cathy, and that is really also about the camera as a recording device," says Salvesen, it's "about a moment and about a place that might not exist after that exposure, or certainly won't exist in the same way."