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Catherine Opie

“Leather dyke” artist no more

by Britany Salisbury

Catherine Opie’s portraits of Chicago contain a sort of beauty that is both surreal and elusive, capturing the city at a particularly vulnerable moment. Streets, high rises, housing projects, and parking lots become surprising in their acute lack of occupants, despite being located in a city populated by millions. The subjects of Chicago (American Cities) -- currently on view at the MCA -- include Lower Wacker Drive devoid of traffic, the Cabrini-Green housing project with no visible occupants, and even an outside-in view of an apartment in which no tenants can be seen. On the surface, these images may seem like a dramatic departure from the earlier work for which Opie is best known. She rose to prominence for her portraits of subjects from communities characterized by alternative sexualities, notable for the way in which they capture both the humanity and beauty in her subjects. In her “Self-Portrait” (1993), Opie appears facing away from the viewer, a crude drawing of two women holding hands in front of a home carved into her back.

The status of such works adds a certain weight to Opie’s recent statement, removing herself from them thematically. “I was becoming the poster child for out, leather dyke-art,” she told Artkrush magazine. "I just wasn’t interested in that.” While it seems both remiss and inappropriate to place value judgments on subject matter, the shift from the loaded portraits of Opie’s early work, to that which is seemingly neutral, such as the show currently on view at the MCA, may seem curious if not viewed within the context of Opie’s greater project.

Seven years ago, Opie began traveling through America photographing major cities. At each stop, she hoped to uncover something beyond the surface, to document the city in a way in which it had not been seen before. Although only one reason for her choice of Chicago is cited in the text accompanying the MCA show -- asserting that the series “examines the spectacular way the city’s architectural monuments are nocturnally lit” -- Opie herself has made revealing comments as to the social significance she finds in urban environments. “[C]ities still hold this utopian notion of what America once was," she described in a 2001 interview from Art Journal. "I feel like I am going around picking things apart, forcing people to look at places and communities that they really don’t want to look at. Yet, I want to look at these places and at these communities. I’m in love with those kinds of images.”

Despite the obvious aesthetic differences, the methodology behind Opie’s earlier portraiture is strikingly similar. “I think I was looking for vulnerability,” she said. “I was just documenting a community of people who happened, coincidentally, to be interested in those ideas.” It was, in fact, these works that drew Opie’s current partner to her. The two are currently raising a young son, Oliver. In 2003, Opie posed for another topless portrait, “Self-Portrait/Nursing,” in which she breastfeeds her child, the scars from earlier photographs still visible. In this image, Opie’s work comes full circle thematically. As the product of her perpetual interest in documenting communities, she has created a community of her own. It is, perhaps, this realization of such a personal community that has initiated and enabled a less personal sort of documentation.

In this light, it seems possible to view Opie’s body of work as a continual process of not simply documenting communities, but of revealing the humanity in them. In portraiture, her portrayal is honest, revealing the similarities between those who some may see as different and ourselves. In American Cities, it is the humanity of cities themselves that is ultimately, and surprisingly revealed. “It seems that the landscape photographs ask a similar set of questions of other modes of photography,” says SAIC Art History professor, David Getsy, who teaches a course on sexuality and representation. “If documentary photography is about capturing the human history, where is it in Opie’s photos of cities and freeways?” asks Getsy. While American Cities remains a visual documentation of architecture, it simultaneously documents the way in which cities create communities, the inherent relationship between us and where we live, and the sense of identity cities create. “Her question is how we read these images,” Getsy says, “in terms of the signs of identity that are never adequate to describe the complexity of the subject, despite the compulsion to read them as such.”

There is a certain comfort in community, as Opie herself acknowledges. Although her shift in subject matter may seem, at times, surprising, it can also be seen as a natural progression facilitated by the development of her personal life and relationships. “I’m interested in the way that the language of the people is embedded in the body of the structures,” Opie has said, “in the same way that the language is embedded in the bodies of my friends and myself as a structure of identity.” Whether contextually personal or private, this sense of continuity has shaped Opie’s body of work, and allows for perpetual movement forward.



Catherine Opie: Chicago (American Cities) is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art through October 15.

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