New York

Catherine Opie

Gorney Bravin + Lee

In one of Catherine Opie’s best-known photographs, an unsettling 1993 self-portrait, a scene of two stick-figure women standing next to a little house under a puffy cloud has been scratched into the skin of the artist’s back. The image of the body with its reddish cicatrix suggests a compelling ambivalence between domestic bliss and self-wounding. For her latest series, it is as though Opie blew up the scarified scenario to life size and animated it. Over a three-year period (1995–98), she visited lesbian acquaintances around the country and photographed them at home doing everyday things. Michelle and Melissa are pictured amid clothes and household goods at their garage sale in Los Angeles; Kristopher and Clara hold hands in two matching yellow rocking chairs in a backyard in Tulsa; Joanne and Betsy pose stiffly in their suburban New York den with their daughter Olivia, who holds a toy pony; Emily, “Sts,” and Becky eat food out of plastic containers in their communal Durham, North Carolina, kitchen. By calling the suite of photographs “Domestic,” Opie seems to suggest that at issue is both a sense of being at home and a certain domestication or taming.

Opie documents with tender clarity the ordinariness of American lesbian family life: the intimacy, the small kernels of joy, the tedium, and above all, the awkwardness. Viewers, even conservative “family values” advocates, can look at these people—young and midlife, svelte and fat, white and black, rural and urban, poor and middle class, sometimes pictured with their natural or adopted children—and recognize themselves, not so much as they might like to be seen, but as they are. Opie is interested in how communities are formed: in part through sexual expression, of course, but also through repeated gestures, through what is sometimes optimistically called the politics of everyday life. The series amply illustrates how the body informs the domestic and vice versa.

Yet the most memorable photographs convey a strong sense of dislocation rather than interpersonal connection. In the foreground of one of the pictures, a low-ceilinged suburban room screams claustrophobia and boredom, contradicting the happy pose of the lesbian couple in the background. Best of all are the still lifes, in which Opie captures significant details from the inhabitants’ rooms: a child’s colorful plastic dollhouse crammed with toys; a corner of a bed covered by a dreary patterned bedspread, and beyond it a rural vista viewed through the window; a charming note left by Sts imploring her “anarchist” housemates to do the dishes. Each of these photographs tells a poignant story of exquisitely mundane pain.

Nico Israel