Catherine Opie has photographed freeway overpasses, homes in Beverly Hills, surfers, mini malls and the Lesbian S&M scene. Her work is both about Los Angeles and a product of it– her freeway series captures the urban expanse, while her portraits find the humanity in it through moments of quiet subversion.
Since the early ’90s, her work has become a quintessential thread in the fabric of the LA art scene– one that isn’t bound by convention.
Opie gained fame for her early self portraits, but she refuses to be defined by them. Her work has always been one step ahead of the public discourse on gender, identity and body politics.
Press Play talked to the artist about some of her images.
Catherine Opie: The self portraits were in some ways what ended up launching launching me into the larger art world. I made “Self-Portrait/Cutting” on my back and it’s two stick figure girls with skirts, sort of what a kindergartener would draw of their family– a little house with a smokestack.
And then because we’re dealing with issues in 1993, still in the AIDS epidemic actually, the kind of polarizing politics of the time and realizing that this image spoke in many different ways. And then to literally have it cut in your skin so that the blood begins to be part of the discourse, was a way for me to begin to really deal with larger issues of homophobia and what it is to be in our bodies and to be identified as queer beings.
[The person who drew this on my back was] a really amazing artist here in Los Angeles by the name of Judie Bamber and she was part of the larger leather community that I was a part of. I had her practice on chicken breasts in the kitchen before she did it. And every time she would make a mark, her hand would shake. My friends kept having to calm her down and tell her that is was OK and that it was consensual and I was asking her to help me make this piece.
And then I did the more daring piece in 1994, and that was having an amazing body modifier by the name of Raelyn Gallina. She did the incredible cutting of pervert on my chest. And then I’m wearing chaps and I have needles lining my arms that were put in by two friends of mine in San Francisco, Melissa and Joe who worked, out a piercing shop called Body.
The first time that this image showed was actually in the 1995 Whitney Biennial. And so I had to go home to my parents in Poway, California with a little 11” by 14” print and tell them that this was going to show in a major American Art Museum and in a thing called the Whitney Biennial and that I needed to come home and show it to them before, all of a sudden, it went out into the public.
It was always so important for me to have a child. It was one of my goals. You know since I was young I would I would go around saying ‘I’m going to have 12 children,’ and of course then when you’re a lesbian that’s a little bit harder to think about. I really wanted a domestic relationship and a family and so forth and I’ve been able to have that now for the last 16 years, so it’s pretty amazing.
Elizabeth Taylor was a person that I think my mother really looked up to. I must have seen National Velvet it over a dozen times. I liked her boldness.
I love making portraits. I make a lot of them. But somebody who is as iconic of a movie star and who has been photographed as much as Elizabeth Taylor, what would it really mean for Cathy Opie to take her photograph? I don’t know if it would mean that much to her or to myself.
People have asked me in different interviews, they’re like “Well why didn’t you want to do a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor?” and I was like “Well I was making a portrait of her.”
I find it a much more intimate portrait through this body of work, than having her sit for me for 40 minutes.
**All images © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong