Catherine Opie

Thomas Dane Gallery, London, UK

Catherine Opie greets visitors to her show at Thomas Dane Gallery. Gazing beyond the gallery window, she faces Duke Street, blue and black tattoos spilling from a grey striped t-shirt, decorating her forearms. Her knuckles catch the light, anchoring the work. Cathy (London) (all works 2017 unless otherwise stated) is calmer in tone than the artist’s seminal triptych of self-portraits depicting, respectively, a longed-for domestic idyll of a house and two women etched into hers back (Self Portrait/Cutting, 1993); Opie wearing a leather fetish hood, needles in her arms and ‘pervert’ bloodily inscribed on her chest (Self Portrait/Pervert, 1994); and Opie suckling her infant son Oliver, posed Madonna-and-Child-like, the scars of ‘Pervert’ still visible (Self Portrait/Nursing, 2004). Initially shocking, Cutting today is owned by the Guggenheim Museum's collection.

web_2017_co_tda07934_lynette.jpg

Catherine Opie, Lynette, 2017. Courtesy: Regen Projects, Los Angeles, USA and Thomas Dane Gallery, London, UK © the artist

Catherine Opie, Lynette, 2017. Courtesy: Regen Projects, Los Angeles, USA and Thomas Dane Gallery, London, UK © the artist

Spanning nearly 30 years, Opie’s career in fine art photography has been governed by explorations into communal, sexual and cultural identities. In 1991, her first solo show ‘Being and Having’ (a play on the patriarchal theories of Jacques Lacan) drew on her involvement in the San Franciscan lesbian S&M community. Placed before a yellow background, her friends wore moustaches, parodying gender stereotypes in cropped close-ups. For Opie’s Portraits series (1993–97) dominatrices, cross-dressers and drag kings were photographed against monochromatic backgrounds, referencing August Sander’s 'People of the 20th Century' project and the dignified tropes of European old master portraiture. (Opie has previously called images of her friends in the S&M community as her ‘royal family’.)

‘Portraits and Landscapes’, her current exhibition at Thomas Dane, while less political is no less attenuated in emotional substance. Made largely in 2017 in a rented London studio, the portraits pay homage towards artistic individuals whom Opie – a believer in tribes – holds in high regard. Using inky black backgrounds, these portraits acknowledge a mutuality between photographer and sitter – people who themselves ‘observe’ professionally. From David Hockney to Gillian Wearing, Rick Owens to Lynette Yiadom-Boayke, the works are titled with first names only. The effect is democratizing, eschewing celebrity status for individuals with fallibilities and frailties. In David, the fine piling in Hockney’s cashmere sweater speaks to the impeccably described fur collar in Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Sir Thomas Moore (1527). Within this dignified artistic lineage space is also made for Hockney’s personal narrative; age spots dust his cheeks, at his ear a hearing aid curves, while in his front pocket a wallet bulges, and a fleck of paint daubs his trousers. Generous and compassionate, of its time and timeless, the work bears witness to the aging body and gifted creative power.

web_2017_co_tda07717_david.jpg

Catherine Opie, David, 2017. Courtesy: Regen Projects, Los Angeles, USA and Thomas Dane Gallery, London, UK © the artist

Catherine Opie, David, 2017. Courtesy: Regen Projects, Los Angeles, USA and Thomas Dane Gallery, London, UK © the artist

Literature is significant to the way Opie thinks. Having been commissioned – and rejected – as a New York Times Magazine cover, her portrait of Jonathan Franzen (Jonathan, 2012) shows the author with his back to the camera, a copy of Leo Tostoy's War and Peace (1867) open midway in his hands. Light tones glisten in an arc amidst velvety darkness – from Franzen’s silver filaments of hair, to the threads in his jacket to the bone-white pages. More is revealed in the lighting of the book than in Franzen himself, alluding to his gifts in ‘lighting’ characters in his fiction. Dusty fingerprints on the pages of the book point to a history of use.

Opie understands that once something takes on iconic status, it risks being obscured by its own romance and mythology. The show includes a single landscape, Untitled #15, which presents an out-of-focus image of the white cliffs of Dover. Deliberately blurring the UK’s iconic geography, Opie invites us to re-engage with the cliffs and reverse their invisibility. The spectral image offers another form of light and shade in a room of charged, chiaroscuro-rich portraits.

Main image: Catherine Opie, Cathy, 2017, (detail). Courtesy: Regen Projects, Los Angeles, USA and Thomas Dane Gallery, London, UK © the artist

Rebecca Swirsky is a writer based in London. Her work has been published in the TLS, The Economist, Icon, New Statesman, the Financial Times and 1843, among other publications. Her fiction has featured in the Best British Short Stories Anthology.

Issue 192

First published in Issue 192

January - February 2018

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
At La Panacée, Montpellier, Nicolas Bourriaud’s manifesto for a new movement and attempt to demarcate an artistic peer...
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018