Finding a Thread of Lavender, Even in Catherine Opie’s Landscapes


While browsing through a new monograph of Catherine Opie’s various photos released during Gay Pride Month, I found myself wondering if, as a gay, there was anything linking celebrity lesbian images in the Bay Area with highway photos in Los Angeles. Ice fishing houses in Minnesota, high school football games in Texas, and Elizabeth Taylor’s lockers in Bel Air.

Is there such a thing as gay or queer sentiment? And if so, is the lavender thread running through the entire body of the “straight” work of Opie, a lesbian who is the new head of the arts department at the University of California, Los Angeles?

Being queer means a break from traditional norms of heterosexuality. From an early age, a person whose libidinal impulses are incompatible with what is naturally prescribed reads the world as a text written in a foreign language and needs to be deciphered. The process of recognizing and assuming a more authentic identity does not remove the feeling of alienation, but this willful creation of a true self also lies at the heart of a queer sensibility, twinned with a longing to adapt by behaving for what it is. not one.

Of course, this mismatch between what someone is and what one is expected or should be is not just the property of gays. In the early 20th century, August Sander painted portraits of Germans from all walks of life trying to live within the constraints of their social roles. Based on pioneering photos of lesbian Claude Cahun and bisexual Diane Arbus, Gillian’s Wear In our time, he has dealt with the presentation of the self by wearing a mask. But agreeing that these are universal human issues does not deny that a queer person – especially a queer artist – will often perceive them as more pervasive and more urgent and urgent.

From the early ’90s, Opie made a name for herself with a series of portraits of Bay Area lesbians engaged in sadomasochistic practices, a community to which she belongs. Her most talked-about photographs were self-portraits: the word “pervert” clad in a leather hoodie and stripped down to her waist, with metal pins running up and down her arms, and a bloody engraved leafy ornament on her breasts; Opie breastfeeds her son with a ten-year “perverse” scar still visible; and most poignantly, the oldest of the bunch – Opie’s bare back is carved with a childlike stick drawing of two women holding hands in front of a house and a cloud partially obscuring the sun.

These self-portraits have been meticulously created and place Opie on rich, deep colored fabric floors with patterns of greenery that resonate with the designs of her cuts. “I knew back then that I had to use aesthetics to talk about my community, that there had to be a different way to go beyond the documentary genre to him,” she said in an interview in the monograph. “I was still documenting, but there’s a formality there.”

Each of the portraits talks about an element of what it means to be queer. “Self-Portrait/Pervert” (1994) is Opie’s loud statement that she will not conform to the characteristics of the dominant society. Still, his self-portrait/Cutout (1993), made a year ago after a failed relationship, expresses his nostalgia for the traditional dream of a loving home partnership. These conflicts are resolved in “Self-Portrait/Nursing” (2004), which depicts Opie breastfeeding her infant son, who has found another wife and a new home in the intervening decade. The persistence of the scar, a visible sign of sexual otherness, indicates that he achieved his goal without pretending to be someone he is not.

Self-portraits struggle head-to-head with the formation of a queer identity. The portraits that built Opie’s reputation in the 90s, her lesbian and trans friends and so do lesbian households in the United States. But most of his output was devoted to streetscapes, landscapes, and still lifes. Produced using various camera formats and printing processes, what they share is what is missing: the presence of humans.

In the ’90s, in the early hours of the weekend mornings, Opie had yet to open the traffic-free highways and Los Angeles mini-malls to shoppers in Los Angeles. He photographed facades and doors in privileged areas of Beverly Hills and Bel Air, where people drive from their cars to their homes and rarely go out in public. Moving away from his own home, he finds icehouses built for fishermen on frozen lakes in northern Minnesota, hilltop walkways in Minneapolis, and St. Louis portrayed the pedestrian gaze of Chicago and New York’s Wall Street.

When he photographed people in the landscape, they were often tiny: surfers paddling in hopes of catching a wave, high school football players racing across grassy fields. They remind me of pictures Harry Callahan lived in his 50s with his wife Eleanor, They stand small and isolated in Chicago’s Lincoln Park with their daughter, Barbara. But Eleanor and Barbara were part of Callahan’s nuclear family. The groups Opie photographed came together through shared affinities to form a community, just as her S&M friends did in the Bay Area.

Starting a heterosexual family is so encouraged and expected that the process may seem to happen without conscious intervention. It’s like swimming in a flowing river. But the communities and partnerships that queer people form require us to steer our boats deliberately and deftly against the current. So I think Opie has an interest in the architecture of channels, systems where people connect, and architecture that prevents people from connecting.

It documents affluent homes in Los Angeles that turn an overly uncommunicative face to the street. The Dickason family portrait, part of her master’s thesis on a planned suburban community, shows that heterosexual family life that emerges in private homes can be as performative as sadomasochistic rituals.

At a higher rung of the social ladder, Opie commemorated Elizabeth Taylor’s Bel Air home in 2011. Opie captured Taylor depicting her chosen clothing and decor ornaments, without photographing the actress who died in the middle of this project. The pictures of Taylor’s closets, where clothes are neatly arranged by color and fabric, are surprisingly candid. The new monograph juxtaposes an earlier photo of Opie entitled “All My Sex Toys” with jeweled red ribbon pins wearing Taylor, one of the first advocates of AIDS. In both cases, Opie was removing her subjects from the closet.

Adapting to how people relate to one another, Angelenos are fascinated by the formal beauty of the concrete highways that take them to and from their homes. He shot the highways with a panoramic camera and made old-fashioned platinum prints. saidTo evoke the elegiac monumentality of 19th century photographers of Egyptian ruins Maxime Du Camp. The walkways in Minneapolis aren’t all that impressive and the mini-malls aren’t that pretty, but like the instruction manuals, they all point to ways people can come together.

Opie reveals that when it involves humans or their distinctive structures – icehouses, surfers, football players – they coalesce in inhospitable environments. They reach out when pushing back.

In his first film, “Modernist” (2016), he looked at the cult of mid-century modernist homes in Los Angeles. The film’s unnamed protagonist is played by his longtime friend and collaborator, Stosh Fila, a transgender man known as Pig Pen. The modernist builds models of iconic houses and then sets real houses on fire. Mid-century modernism was an architectural movement born of utopian optimism. He produced structures that today are prize houses for the ultra-rich. Although the buildings have large glazing, their location is often as private as the enclosed houses Opie photographed in Beverly Hills. Owners can look at the city without anyone looking at them. Dwellings are transparent castles.

The Modernist who obsessively loves these houses is consumed and tormented by this desire until he feels compelled to demolish them. When I first watched the movie, I thought of Oscar Wilde’s famous line from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”: “And all people kill what they love.” It is a very peculiar feeling in its conflicts, irony and longing.


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