By Rebecca Lossin
Catherine Opie: American Photographer, a mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, is a deceitfully simple title. The historical project that so successfully binds images as disparate as black and white cityscapes and larger than life tattooed bodies, is perfectly encapsulated in a label whose meaning is at once obvious and inscrutable.
Best known for a series of formal portraits taken in the early 90’s and easily figured in terms of the controversy-ready content of the queer communities they document, the name Catherine Opie does not evoke the traditionally de-politicized landscape. But a large part of the exhibition is taken up by this genre and its counterpart, the cityscape. The painstakingly formal, 40” x 50” chromogenic prints of ice fishing huts on the frozen white lakes of Minnesota reminded me of the sparse winter landscapes of Andrew Wyeth and the broadness of the title, American Photographer, began to make sense to me.
“ I prefer winter and fall,” said Wyeth, “when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show.”
Opie’s work does not seek to explain these itinerant communities. Nor is her stance that of objective documentarian and its attendant cultural privilege. Fully aware that no one experience is inclusive, Opie’s position on the periphery of Surfers/Ice Huts underscores the limitations of a single observer. But its emphasis on the structural components of a community, re-asserts this position’s relationship to a larger structure, rescuing the individual gaze from social and historical obscurity.
Wyeth’s sense of loneliness in the bone structure of the landscape was not revelatory; its obscurity was integral to his experience of it. Opie posits a similar relationship to the [itinerant] communities that she photographed in Surfers/Ice Huts. These lines of red huts dwarfed by the expanse of white frozen lakes, and grey bodies of surfers subsumed by grey waves, indicate the existence of something unknowable waiting beneath.
While Opie’s relationship to the queer community is certainly not one of excluded observer, her inclusion in it presupposes an outsider position similar to the one she assumed in Surfers/Ice Huts. And the refusal to speak for the subject of the photograph that this relationship implies is an act that is arguably more pertinent to her portraits- the depiction of a bodies that are too often spoken for even if they are rarely spoken of.
Opie has positioned herself as an historical actor- product and producer of culture and it is the photographer’s participation in an historical process that binds these anti-climactic images of surfers waiting for waves- their bodies so small in relation to the gray scale ocean making an argument for the label anti-portraiture- to her large formal portraits of de-formalized gender.
The intersection of the subject and history is re-articulated in the formal references to historic paintings and rules of portraiture so carefully observed in pieces such as Self-Portrait/Pervert (1994). Opie has photographed herself seated in front of heavy drapery, whose pattern has been carved into her chest as a decorative flourish below the word “pervert” in large gothic letters. Her arms are punctured by tidy rows of needles; her face is covered in a black leather mask; her hands are folded neatly in front of her. Opie refers to this as her “Henry VIII” portrait. In yet another formulation of historical relationships, the scarred ‘pervert’ remains legible in Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004), an image of Opie breast-feeding her daughter in a pose evocative of the Virgin Mary. The inscription’s permanence, no longer bloody but linguistically in tact, does not speak to its lasting and painful stigma as much as the reformulation of its meaning when written on the subject of its history. Not only does the word take on significance in terms of the virgin birth, but in terms of ten years on a living moving body- the intersection of the unifying, transcendent narrative of History and its individual and finite performance.
In addition to reflecting Opie’s historical project, the curators’ choice to present Opie as iconic at a particularly conservative and reactionary moment in American History, is an important political act in itself. More than a series of events leading to the present, “history is the creation of values and meaning by a signifying practice that requires the subjection of the body. Solidly situating Opie at the center of this historical narrative recognizes the violence inherent in the formation of the word American. But it is also an optimistic gesture, an act of posterity that envisions a future American; one slightly more liberated from the cultural morass of conservatism and marginalizing gender politics, from which Catherine Opie so unexpectedly emerged