Installation view of Catherine Opie -‘700 Nimes Road’ at MOCA Pacific Design Center, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Brian Forrest.
Catherine Opie is definitely best known for her confrontational photographic portraits of individuals at the edge of received gender and sexual identities: drag kings, S&M dykes in full regalia, screaming queens and muscle Marys in fetish gear. It was almost inevitable. Nothing fills up column inches faster than controversy and shock. And, of course, that these are all powerful and beautifully achieved portraits. So why wouldn’t a public hungry for new images readily consume them?
But, even in these better known and provocative bodies of work, there is something deeply tender and human about her camera’s gaze. If we look past the lifestyles or sexual choices of those depicted that might radically differ from our own understanding of the universe, there is something conversational between photographer and sitter, something empathetic about her vision of the person she shows us despite any shock-value surface. That is why Opie is rated by top art critics and theorists.
As she herself explains, “I have always been looking for a notion of equality in humanity.” And that’s why, if we only associate Opie with her more famous-slash-notorious work, we’re only getting less than half the picture. Look to her portraits of footballers or surfers – less likely to make mainstream audiences recoil in shock or reactive fear– and it might be easier to detect that direct point of view that finds something very honest, almost confessional in her sitters and, above all, gives us very humane portraits. Or, look to her black and white images of California’s highways and strip malls and you’ll find a photographer who understands the emotive quality of material culture’s less than celebrated moments.
Combine these thoughts and you have a bit of an ‘in’ to her current exhibition ‘700 Nimes Road’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’s PDC site. Made over a period of three years, the exhibition draws on two bodies of work that Opie shot at the former home of cinema legend Liz Taylor. Partly a conscious homage to William Eggelston’s famous images of Elvis Presley’s Graceland estate, Opie offers us a very personal and highly charged image of Taylor’s home and personal possessions that speak as much of her own relationship to the mythology surrounding the star. Many of the images are close-ups, details on the verge of abstraction. Opie herself readily acknowledges that this is a departure, a more recent body of work that has little direct relationship to the social documentary position that has underpinned much of her work.
Taylor’s absence becomes an even more powerful presence as we snoop around her furs and dresses, her jewellery or rooms she once occupied. One of the few images depicting the globally recognisable icon is, in fact, a photograph of Andy Warhol’s portrait of Ms Taylor. It’s a powerful moment and Opie’s deployment of photography’s equivalent of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt: in a quiet aside we are asked to consider the nature of a myth and how, in many ways, it is a construction created by others in which both the star and we, the viewers, are complicit. Now, given that level of consensual suspension of disbelief, perhaps all those images of ‘aggressive’ lesbians engaged in consensual sadomasochistic lifestyles don’t seem so removed from the psychologies of our daily lives after all.