New York

Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie began her “public” artistic career in 1991 with a series of thirteen photographs titled “Being and Having.” The title was a seeming allusion to Jacques Lacan’s contentious psychoanalytic system that posits women as “being” the phallus, and men as “having” it. Rejecting outright such heterosexist structuralism, Opie’s staged “documentary” portraits depicted (and thereby demarcated) a community organized around its members’ identifications with butch-dyke, queer, trans, and s/m politics. But the photos never seemed to represent “identity politics” proper, which, at least in its most vulgar manifestations, has always been about essentialism and the presupposition of a subject (a “doer behind the deed,” per Nietzsche, via Judith Butler, who in the early 1990s was building her own powerful critique of Lacan’s presumptively “straight” model). On the contrary, Opie’s images—while about visibility, group identification, and, certainly, subjecthood—have always suggested that you, too, could get in on the fun. Opie wasn’t born with pervert carved into her chest; she made it that way. Her work is about deep identifications—not identity.

The title of Opie’s recent exhibition of forty-five photographs at Gladstone Gallery, “Girlfriends,” does appear to essentialize, however, to make unambiguous many of the posers’ “clearly” ambiguous relations to gender. (Is artist Harry “Harriet” Dodge a “girl”? What about longtime Opie cohort Pig Pen? How many of these subjects would, in fact, embrace the titular appellation?) If the insistently thematizing title constitutes each of these figures as “girls,” it also, of course, posits them as “friends” (or even lovers), part of an ever-expanding, promiscuous community predicated on the photographer’s own libidinal cathexes. Thus, reflexively, Opie’s desire becomes the ostensible subject of the exhibition—a subject affirmed and reified by all the coquettish gazes and hyperbolically come-hither poses on view. (The magnetic Jenny Shimizu—“Chicken” in the “Being and Having” series—is here depicted in Jenny and Jenny [Bed], both 2009, almost cartoonish approximations of butch-dyke pinups.) Opie seems to be saying that you can be your cake and eat it, too.

But the title of the show is also a joke, a riff on (or better, an appropriation of) Richard Prince’s photographic series of the same name—a series that “makes again” the salacious cheesecake pictures of often topless, horny-looking women found in the back of biker magazines. Opie may not typically evince an interest in appropriation as an artistic strategy, but she is certainly compelled by stereotype and its reiterations. And while Prince reengages the uncannily “familiar” images of mass-media magazines, Opie here—in a show that spans some twenty-two years of her photography—focuses principally on familiar or famous queers. These are people we know, from magazines, television, blogs, or, in some cases, from Opie’s own work. There’s Daniela Sea and Kate Moennig from The L Word and the musicians J. D. Samson and k. d. lang; there’s Dodge and the poet Eileen Myles; there’s Pig Pen and Idexa—Opie’s photographic family par excellence, their tattoos slightly faded, their lines ratified into wrinkles, but their countenances nonetheless strikingly recognizable.

There’s a productive conversation here between two very different, very characteristically “American” photographers. There’s also a productive conversation between two very different versions of a self—the Opie before and during her artistic “coming-out” and the Opie of subsequent decades. If her project has often been concerned with making “visible” (or, in the Butlerian register, even “intelligible”) certain kinds of bodies and communities, it’s evident that it is—if never really complete—at least now speaking to a changed society. These are Opie’s “girlfriends” in the wake of The L Word, Thomas Beatie, Chaz Bono, Cynthia Nixon, Buck Angel, Ellen. We’re here, we’re queer, you’re used to it—right?

David Velasco