Binding Tie explores the world of transitions as explored by celebrated artist Catherine Opie

The Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, is hosting the first Australian survey of Opie’s works. This exhibition, Binding Ties, features portraits of Oliver Opie, son of Catherine Opie.

Oliver’s three portraits all use an art historical device to interpret the identity of the sitter through allegory. Opie has a knack for bringing out the antecedents of photography in what we call legacy media or old masters.

Catherine Opie. Oliver in a Tutu (2002) Courtesy Regen Projects Los Angeles, Lehmann Maupin New York, Hong Kong London and Seoul. Author provided

Drama and emotion

Photographically, the painterly references to Opie’s large-scale oval portraits are repeated. The chiaroscuro, or sharp contrast between light and dark, made famous by Caravaggio, creates dramatic and emotional effects.

Thelma and Duro, a magnificent film from 2017, shows an older African American couple in a black background, with their eyes looking out in opposite directions as if they were at odds. Thelma’s fingers press hard against Duro’s hand on the right, leaving his left free to adopt the mannerist pose of a Renaissance Prince.

The oval portrait of Rocco, 2012 shows the transition scars under “Tender Hearted”, a large breastplate tattoo running across the sitter’s chest. Rocco’s portrait is a visual mirror of Opie’s self-portrait, in which the word “Pervert” was cut into the skin. This scarification ritual brings out the innate ability of the epidermis to track change over time.

Catherine Opie Rocco (2012). pigment print. Courtesy Regen Projects is in Los Angeles, Lehmann Maupin is in New York, Hong Kong and London, and Seoul. Author provided

In many Opie portraits the skin is displayed, not as a symbol of race but as something that captures how we differ from one another and ourselves in our daily wear and tear. Opie’s camera views scars as signs that we all share a common fear.

It is, therefore, best to simply glance over the didactic panels, which point out the symbolic meanings, and look at the scenes and people in front of us as Opie might have seen them.

Catherine Opie. Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993) Courtesy Regen Projects Los Angeles, Lehmann Maupin New York, Hong Kong London and Seoul. Author provided

Dykes, drags and trans-portraits

The exhibition is dominated by the iconic portraits Opie took in the 1990s of her queer friends in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Leather dykes and drag performers, as well as her long-time collaborator Pig Pen, are photographed against her signature vibrantly colored backgrounds.

Opie and friends reject gender stereotypes, normative sexuality and binary gender categories. They use gestures, postures, clothing and accessories to create ever-shifting images for her camera.

These portraits were created in the 1990s, when AIDS was the leading cause of death among Americans aged 25-44.

Opie’s portraits, like the earlier work by Robert Mapplethorpe or Nan Goldin played a major role in giving agency to the LGBTQ community. They allowed them to see themselves the way they wanted to be.

History and Iconography

Photographers who are intimately familiar with their subjects’ personalities tend to produce the most compelling portraits.

How can we explain portraits of high school footballers, which are amongst the most compelling in the Heide study? The sweaty athletes in gridiron armour, with their exposed midriffs, and six-packs on the rise are not Opie’s friends or family but they all testify to the continual nature of change.

Catherine Opie. Kaine (2007) Courtesy Regen Projects Los Angeles, Lehmann Maupin New York, Hong Kong London and Seoul and Author provided

The three self-portraits in the middle gallery are also iconic. Each portrait is saturated in Christian iconography and art history references.

In Self-Portrait/Pervert (1994), Opie plays with the sumptuary codes of wealth and prestige by facing the camera half-naked, her head covered in a leather BDSM hood. The floral curtain behind Opie, with its ornate tattoo on her bleeding chest, is styled to match the tattoo. Her strong arms have 23 surgical needles embedded in her skin as ornamental jewellery.

In Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), the artist’s back, also bleeding from a childlike drawing etched into her skin, shows a stereotypical family scene in which two mothers take the stick figures roles of mother and father. Instead of celebrating Rainbow Families, Opie’s scarification reflects her deep sorrow at the end of her long-term marriage and her domestic hopes.

Next year, we see her as Bo (1996), her mustachioed alter-ego. Then, precisely ten years later, her familial longings are realised in the double portrait of Opie breastfeeding her immaculate son in Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004).

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