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Catherine Oppie

Neither of the two self-portraits that Catherine Opie created in 1993 and 1994 revealed her face but they radically bared her soul. In Self-Portrait / Cutting, a house, a cloud and two stick-figures in skirts have been freshly carved into the artist’s still-bleeding back in the style of a children’s drawing, while in Self-Portrait/Pervert, Opie confronts the viewer wearing a black leather mask that covers her entire head, the work’s title elegantly engraved into her bare chest with a scalpel, while 23 needles pierce each arm like sacred ornaments. Both images were, the New York Times explained 15 years later, “like shock troops crashing a mannerly art-world party”, making Opie instantly famous. Since then she has bestowed aesthetic order on jumbled streetscapes, photographed the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia as a pristine idyll and captured special glimpses of the inner lives of her many, often famous sitters. From her perch in a glass house on the edge of a national forest, she turns her computer screen around to share the view with me when a quail flutters by.

Interview by Claudia SteinbergPortrait by Heather Rasmussen

CLAUDIA STEINBERG Did you design your house?

CATHERINE OPIE No, it was designed as a kit house by the architect Linda Taalman just before the prefab thing was starting. It has held up great, even against the massive rainstorms we’ve had in California.

CS Yes, atmospheric rivers – a new phrase in the expanding lexicon of disasters.

CO The river on my property changed for the first time in 20 years; it broke the banks and made new rivers all over the land. Four bridges have been blown out. All these large rocks tumbled onto my land, big boulders and trees and things that were never there before. Now I have beachfront property, which I’ve never had. I’ve never had sand on the land. So I’m up here photographing and just having a good time looking at it all. We might have major flooding again, so I just stay around for the rain and watch it add up again.

CS I know that you love Holbein, and that you light your portraits like Renaissance or Baroque paintings. That created a tension between your early sitters – initially your own community of outsiders, as well as yourself – and traditional aesthetics. These ennobling images have likely contributed to a more nuanced and complex view of the LGBTQ+ communities. Have your photographs changed in return?

CO My work reflected the politics of the relationship between visibility and representation. The thing that doesn’t change is the persistence of the conservative nature of both religion and culture, and the hatred and the transphobia, homophobia and xenophobia. It’s amazing to me that with the representation we have now – because we used to be able to blame it on not having representation – that even with representation there are still so many hateful sentiments and now actual laws against transsexuality and so on.

CS Some of your most intense and indelible portraits are of yourself, like the one nursing the wheat-blond Oliver, both of you naked. Are you more courageous in portraying yourself in a situation that seems to transgress so many conventions than when depicting someone else?

CO In my early 30s, I was bold. I was pissed off. I was watching my friends die daily of AIDS. I was very, very interested – through the leather community – in the substance of blood. Blood was particularly fascinating at that time.

CS Many artists, Kiki Smith among them, dealt with blood – the mythic substance of life suddenly transformed into a deadly fluid.

CO There was a lot of that going on. I’m grateful for being born in 1961 because of what I was able to experience in the 1980s, and working with artists who were pushing limits – people like Sue Williams talking about rape on her canvas or Karen Finley pushing the frontiers of performance or Matthew Barney climbing around lathered with Vaseline. I felt that my work was truly a discourse about the times that I was living in. One powerful thing about art is the relationship of reflection and of history building. Those two things are really central markers for me in terms of how I develop my ideas, although at the time I wasn’t necessarily thinking I was making historical work, because I was young and I had never even shown in a museum.

CS So you were constructing history from the most personal elements?

CO Very personal. I felt that was the boldest thing that I could do as an artist, and if I was expecting my friends to let me photograph them, was to do something bolder with my own body. So I created a trilogy of self-portraits: me wearing a leather mask in the photograph I called Pervert; me nursing my son; and me and the drawing cut into my back.

CS Which looks like a child’s drawing. Who engraved it onto your back?

CO It was cut by the great artist Judie Bamber, a painter. She had never been part of the S&M community or done something like that before. I wanted it to be a cutting, but not a precise cutting. I wanted it to feel that it had dripped and that it had flaws. If somebody in my S&M community had done it, someone like the well-known body modifier Raelyn Gallina who carved the word “Pervert” on my chest — then you would have had perfection. Everything with a scalpel has an exact depth; it’s completely precise. With somebody who has never cut anybody before, they’re really scared, and I wanted that energy to go into the piece. I wanted a lot of different kinds of energy in that piece, so it fitted this idea of a childlike drawing and had that kindergarten awkwardness. It’s funny because I identify as butch and yet I still present myself in that picture as a girl in a skirt. My girlfriend and I had just broken up, and it was my first domestic relationship that fell apart. So that piece was made out of a lot of sadness and worries: am I ever going to get a teaching job being who I am? Am I ever going to be aligned with family and have a home? All of that was embedded within that piece but even more important was the question how we represent family as children, and the complicated nature of representation.

CS I also want to ask you about your close friend Pigpen. You have worked with her several times and then you made a film with her, The Modernist [2016], where this lithe, androgynous, and dramatically tattooed arsonist destroys the modernist landmarks of LA.

CO It’s a queer fuck-architecture film, the weirdest thing about the utopian dream of modernism you’ll ever see, but it’s more importantly a conversation with Chris Marker’s La Jetée [1962].

CS A science-fiction film set in postnuclear Paris. You worked with Marker’s method of composing a film of single images. I agree that modernism has been misguided in many ways, but then you go to the Hamptons, for example, and you see all those McMansions that have colonised the waterfront, replacing many small, delicate-looking houses that came out of the modernist tradition. Modernist houses don’t seem to impose super rationality onto the landscape. On the contrary, they express love of nature and tread so lightly.

CO My house just hunkers down here in the landscape, but when I look across the river, this retired contractor built himself the largest, ugliest house and I can’t hide from it because I’m in a glass house. I don’t understand why people need a 10,000-square-foot vacation home.

CS You not only address modernism with your film, you also took many photographs of the built environment in general, of mundane structures like highway ramps that, through your lens, appear elegant, like abstract compositions that almost look like drawings.

CO I did a lot on the built environment, and I just created a new body of work on the subject, called Walls, Windows, and Blood in which I use the forum in front of the Vatican to critique the Catholic Church. The built environment is also a portrait. When I’m doing a panorama of a mini-mall, for example, it’s a portrait of the community that allows you to understand the mom-and-pop shops and the relationship of immigration to LA and all of these things through the facade, in the same way that our body might mark queerness – that leather jacket, that earring worn this way – in relation to identity. Photographing the built environment is just as important to me in terms of trying to figure out what we do in this world as humans – how do we project a larger humanity? How can I best map out my thoughts through making these bodies of work that are about cities, as well as about humans and nature?

CS You never portray these sites in a straightforward documentary fashion but abstract them, and there are no people in the frame, even though it is all about them. When you photographed Wall Street – or downtown Manhattan – you chose the counter- intuitive horizontal format, denying that arrogant, awe-inspiring verticality.

CO I was thinking, “OK, here we have verticality, but I’m a Western girl so I’m just gonna go ahead and do panorama.” I love that the verticality comes out in so many ways in that last photograph I took with the World Trade towers – it was literally a week before they came down. I was living in New York and teaching at Yale at the time, and I was going to Wall Street every Sunday at six in the morning to get it as empty as I could. It’s interesting because I talk a lot about being a social-documentary photographer, about bearing witness. I thought that my images would be more important when I was dead; it never occurred to me that images could be contemporary and historical. Then the Northridge earthquake happened [in 1994] and the freeways came down, and then came 9/11. The question of urgency in documentary photography when you’re not a photojournalist is really interesting to me. I’m not a photojournalist, but I still want to talk about the times that we’re living in. So I try to figure out a form that allows people to stand back and look for quietness and to enter a familiar space, which is possible especially with black and white photography, because to me black and white represents a certain kind of democracy. In black and white, there are just grey tones. I’m really fascinated with how the construction of images works – responding to our sensibility, but also creating history, which can happen in a second – then the land is completely transformed.

CS And how can this be captured in your poetic documentary method?

CO Photography as a medium makes it difficult not to create constant clichés. When I’m abstracting the landscapes, it’s a way for me to talk about the hypocrisy of description through photography, which in itself is a descriptive form, so it’s really about the juxtaposition of images, a certain way that you lay out a series of thoughts as a poetic gesture. The history of picture-making has forever changed in relationship to technologies, but Tacita Dean said a really brilliant thing to me: “Don’t talk about it as technologies, Cathy. Talk about it as a medium.” We can talk about the transformation of anything through technology, but what you decide to do with the medium is actually very specific to you. If I’m going back and forth shooting from film to digital, or even making images on my iPhone that I’m putting out in the world, that choice is not a technology, it’s a medium. ◉