Adrift in Catherine Opie’s Photographs

Catherine Opie, Katy, 1996

Catherine Opie’s photographs of the lesbian, gay and transgender community, recently on display at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, are meant to challenge the viewer: at the very least they put into question stereotypes about gender, identity and sexuality. Yet inasmuch as the comparably small black and white prints from the ‘Girlfriend’ series exhibited in the front room of the gallery appear to challenge preconceived ideas about gender, Opie also taps into a lineage, or a heritage of images from a surprising number of sources.

Catherine Opie, Pig Pen (Crown of Thorns), 1995 and Albrecht Durer, The dead Christ with the crown of thorns

Amongst photographs that show Opie’s friends in various stages of undress, there is one image, titled ‘Pig Pen (Crown of Thorns), 1995′, of a young woman whose head is punctuated by, what looks like syringes while small drops of blood pour down her face. The portrait has a startling resemblance to a representation of Jesus Christ, blood streaming down his face from the Crown of Thorns. Opie’s photograph is a brutal contemporary reference to Christ’s suffering. Unlike religious iconography however, in which Christ’s suffering is inflicted by others, the pain endured by Opie’s subject is self-inflicted.

Catherine Opie, Julie (Play Piercing), 1994

The desire for self-harm is also evident in ‘Julie (Play Piercing), 1994′ in which a young woman tilts her head back as her face is punctuated by needles. Rather than looking in despair, Opie’s subject appears to enjoy the pain, the head tilted back even signifies a level of ecstasy. In other words, pain is pleasure and vice versa. Other photographs, too, seek to challenge any preconceived ideas about (sexual) pleasure, pain, aggression, lust and desire.

Catherine Opie, Angela (Crotch Grab), 1992 and cover for Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers, 1971

‘Angela (Crotch Grab) 1992′ for instance is a smart visual allegory on the clichéd image of male sexuality: here it is not a man, but a woman, who is grabbing into a tight pair of jeans, evoking the classic Rolling Stones album cover for ‘Sticky Fingers’. While the subject’s legs are slightly apart and her hand aggressively reaches down her jeans, the viewer would be forgiven to assume that the level of aggression more closely represents a male form of sexual dominance. This is, I assume, precisely Opie’s point: she plays a visual game with the viewer, tricks him or her to revert to assumed forms of representations, while flipping these assumptions upside down. Much like pain turns into pleasure, equally, man turns into woman in Opie’s photographs.

Catherine Opie, SUnset #6, 2011 and Hiroshi Sugimoto, Caribbean Sea, Jamaica, 1980

A more recent body of work, titled ‘Twelve Miles to the Horizon: Sunrises and Sunsets’ and on display at the back of the gallery, is physically, conceptually and even aesthetically somewhat removed from the provocative images Opie is best-known for. Commissioned by the shipping company Hanjin, Opie photographed sunrises and sunsets while at sea on a cargo ship traveling from South Korea to California. Misleadingly referred to in the press release as ‘landscape photography’ (despite the lack of ‘land’ itself), Opie followed a precise methodology: all photographs on display are in vertical format, in colour and with the horizon line in the centre of the image. While Hiroshi Sugimoto’s well-known series of photographs ‘Seascapes’ might share an aesthetic proximity with this body of work, I believe Opie’s ‘Twelve Miles to the Horizon’ is conceptually closer located to Allan Sekula’s epic project ‘Fish Story’. Like Sekula’s seminal work, Opie’s project can be read as a critical investigation into consumption, global commerce and trade. Neatly placed at the top and bottom end of the gallery space, only two photographs actually show a part of the ship itself. This has the effect that the rectangular gallery space alludes to the structure of the ship, while the viewer is invited to gaze at the horizon line as universal signifier for the sublime.

Catherine Opie: American Photographer is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.

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