A rare visit with Golden State photographer Catherine Opie reveals a fresh perspective in her latest endeavor.
On a blustery Friday morning near USC, photographer Catherine Opie opens the front gate to her 1908 Craftsman home. â€śCome on in,â€ť she says. Sheâ€™s wearing a peaked hat, dress shirt and loose-fitting jeans, eyes framed by thick white glasses. We pass a tangle of succulents and overgrown flowers and walk inside, where Opieâ€™s partnerâ€”a painter and resident green thumbâ€”Julie Burleigh, is just leaving for the day.
The feeling is cozy and intimate: worn oriental rugs, an Arco lamp, a disco Gumby by Raymond Pettibon, a small Lari Pittman in the hallway, a stylized photograph of two men dancing together by Robert Mapplethorpe is in the living room. Out the back door, past a chicken coop and a beehive, is Opieâ€™s Roger White-designed studio. Here, the skylights have shades so Opie can block out the sun and create those Holbein-inspired studio portraits for which sheâ€™s known. Today, however, the shades are pulled back, shedding light on her latest project hanging on the walls: Elizabeth Taylorâ€™s closet. Shot with a Hasselblad H2 with a digital back (in Opieâ€™s opinion, the closest approximation to film), the photographs are close-ups of silks and ermine hanging cheek by jowl, almost unrecognizable beyond texture and color. â€śWhat is iconic?â€ť she asks. Throughout her career, she has consistently toyed with that concept. In the 2003 series â€śSurfersâ€ť and the 1994-95 series â€śFreeway,â€ť she reworked those L.A. motifs. â€śSurfers are always on a wave; mine are waiting,â€ť she says. â€śFreeways are always full; mine are empty.â€ť
With Elizabeth Taylor, Opie took a similar approach. â€śThe estate understood I wasnâ€™t interested in the project in relationship to her celebrity. I was interested in the relationship to what is human,â€ť she says. Itâ€™s the first time any photographer has tackled the inner sanctum of Taylorâ€™s closet. A business connection first put Opie in touch with Taylorâ€™s people (they have the same accountant), and Opie began the six-month project in 2011 without ever meeting the actress, who had been promised the final edit of the photographs. â€śShe would watch me through her bedroom curtains,â€ť recalls Opie. Then, when Taylor passed away before that final edit, the body of work became both a documentation of her possessions and the dismantling of Taylorâ€™s personal space. â€śThat in itself was a challenge,â€ť says Opie. â€śI didnâ€™t want the project to be in the realm of morbidity, but this was intense because it was through a transformation.â€ť As I flip through the binder of contact sheets, there are jewels piled like pirateâ€™s booty spilling out of a box. Other images are shot out of focus so the gems become abstract shapes and forms. In later pages, the objects become archivalâ€”the members of Christieâ€™s tagging them like artifacts. Opie hopes to have completed her final selects by August, and she plans on an Eggleston-style portfolio, a coffee table book and exhibition. Nothing is firmed up yet, however.
Along with her ongoing work as a professor at UCLA, Opie recently exhibited at Regen Projects; the Woodbury University gallery in Hollywood, where she received the Excellence in Photography award from the Julius Shulman Institute; and the Long Beach Museum of Art.
The Ohio native, with degrees from SF Art Institute and CalArts, was first noticed for photographing members of San Franciscoâ€™s LGBT community, often in formal poses and with a regal air. Shaun Regen of Regen Projects, who has represented Opie in L.A. for the past 20 years, calls those endeavors â€śtender and proud at the same time.â€ť Her self-portraits, more aggressive, have also made a profound impact. One shows Opie, blindfolded, pierced by 46 18-gauge needles with the word pervert cut across her breasts. In another, a house and two children are carved into her back. The most recent, the 2004 Self Portrait/Nursing, shows Opie naked, breastfeeding her son, Oliver, with the word pervert now faded. Many of these polemic portraits explore identity and community. High-profile figures make appearancesâ€”K.D. Lang, Jenny Shimizu, swimmer Diana Nyadâ€”but there are also the unsung heroes: high school football players trying on their newfound manhood; lesbian couples at home with their children; shopkeepers in South Central standing in front of their wares. â€śIâ€™m not interested in being a singular identity,â€ť she says. â€śIâ€™m just not.â€ť She collaborated with fashion label Rodarte and Alec Soth on a book; documented rural Minnesota and the wedding-cake-like exteriors of Angeleno homes. â€śHer range is astonishing,â€ť says Regen. â€śAnd sheâ€™s making some of the most painterly photographs Iâ€™ve ever seen.â€ť
After coffee in Opieâ€™s kitchen we drive to the new Michael Maltzan-designed gallery at Regen Projects in Hollywood, where her latest show signals a coming of age. â€śI was going back to what inspired me from the early days,â€ť explains Opie. This time, she creeps out of her own paradigm. Gone are the bright, seamless backgrounds, but the formality of 15th-century painting lingers. Some portraits are housed in sweet, cameo-style frames, making the relentless black of the backgrounds lose some of its edginess. Abstract shapes from natural parks are interspersed between the portraits; the forms are wispy, ephemeral. Jonathan Franzen hunches over a War and Peace, practically seething with his legendary grumpiness. Laura Mulleavy whispers in her sister Kateâ€™s ears, the shape of the two figures reminiscent of a Botticelli painting. â€śThey finish each otherâ€™s sentences. Itâ€™s almost a symbiotic relationship,â€ť says Opie as she walks through the space. Blood drips from Opieâ€™s trainerâ€™s hand in another portrait. â€śBlood is no longer about identity within a specific community; itâ€™s simply a substance of the body,â€ť she adds. The people she chooses to capture are still from all walks of life, but there is a unifying characteristic: They are, quite simply, loving. â€śIâ€™ve mellowed,â€ť the artist says. â€śI decided to go maternal,â€ť says Opie. â€śI feel secure doing that.â€ť
Written and edited by Elizabeth Khuri Chandler
Photographed by Jessica Sample
Catherine Opie’s photographs courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles Â© Catherine Opie