Surviving 20 years as an artist is a feat in and of itself, but having a career retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York City after only two decades is definite validation. Lesbian artist Catherine Opie is famous for her self-portraits and formalist photographs, and as her exhibit at the museum suggests, she’s created her own world of normal that includes small-town football players, Hollywood mansions, drag kings and pregnant gay women (including Ilene Chaiken and her ex in a swimming pool — hmm, I wonder where she got that Tina-Helena pool-sex idea?).
Opie is also a mother and a professor at UCLA, and the winner of several awards for her photographs. Her 200-photograph exhibit at the Guggenheim (called “American Photographer”) is surely the biggest she’s had to date, and with the widest range of representation of her work.
One of the pieces on display is one of her most famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask): her 1994 S&M-themed self-portrait with the word “Pervert” cut into her chest and dozens of needles in her arms. Opie recently told the New York Times:
I made the piece out of a reaction to all of the sudden gays and lesbians bringing on the “normal” dialogue to us. Let’s push the boundaries a little bit here about what you guys think normal is.
The “Pervert” chest also makes an appearance in a 2004 portrait of Opie breastfeeding her son, Oliver. Although it’s a photograph of a natural act between a mother and a child, because it’s Opie, it’s automatically controversial, which at the same times makes it great art. Says Opie of her overtly lesbian subtext:
Another reason that I think it’s really important to be out and do the work that I make is to create examples for younger people … The discourse with family is usually heterosexual, and I wanted to create another context to begin to think about family, both on a personal and political level.
“American Photographer” is at the Guggenheim until Jan. 7, 2009. If you can’t get to New York, several of the selected works are on the museum’s website, as well as a video interview with Opie.