Altered States of America: Catherine Opie

Exhibition Catalogue, Altered States of America: Catherine Opie, 2000 © The Photographers' Gallery

Altered States of America: Catherine Opie

On Photography

9 August – 24 September 2000


This exhibition of work by Catherine Opie – her first solo show in the UK - curated by the Gallery’s then Senior Programmer, Kate Bush, offered insight into Opie’s subject interests and versatility as a photographer.  

‘I’m a kind of twisted social documentary photography’ – Catherine Opie

“In her first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom, American photographer Catherine Opie presents a selection of work made over the last seven years. It includes the first showing in Europe of her latest series Domestic. Opie is a photographer who combines a breathtaking technical virtuosity with subject matter which is alternately transgressive and shocking, classical and composed.

“Catherine Opie shot to prominence in the mid 1990s with a spectacular sequence of Portraits of her close friends from within Los Angles’ leather community: transvestites, female-to-male transsexuals, drag queens, body manipulators and others who pioneer the body as a site of sexual and aesthetic experimentation. Opie created a sequence of elegant, gorgeously coloured portraits which gave their subjects a regal dignity: they stare back through us instead of being the ones continually stared at. The series includes a number of self-portraits, including Bo, 1994. One of several Opie alter-egos, Bo – a butch, mustachioed, tattooed truck driver – represents a different, darker side of the artist. In other Self Portraits, Opie pushes this sense of the psychic and physical self-exploration to an extreme by subjecting her body to a series of painful manipulations. ‘I want to push the whole realm of beauty and elegance’ she says, ‘but also to make people scared out of their wits.’

“Catherine Opie always understands the surface of things – whether the extravagantly decorated bodies of her friend, or the facades of buildings in her local community – as expressive of the individual within. Her move in 1995 to seemingly formal, architectural subjects was an unexpected departure, yet entirely consistent with her concerns as an artist, ‘My work is always close to home. It’s always about my surroundings and the way I wander through the world,’ she says, ‘It is about how communities begin to form and how people try to change themselves.’ The Houses and Landscapes are pictures of houses, and at the same time, portraits of the invisible individuals who occupy them. Shot head-on, these homes in middle-class LA suburbia have been ‘personalised’ in surprising ways by their inhabitants, while remaining firmly barricaded from the outside world.

“This series was followed by Freeways , miniature platinum prints shot on a specially-made 7” x 17” ‘Banquet’ camera. These soft, silvery pictures of LA’s gigantic concrete roads and soaring flyovers are reminiscent of 19th century travellers’ photographs in the Holy Land or the Valley of the Kings. Photographed at dawn, and emptied of cars and people, they appear like ruins or archeological sites being pictured for the first time. The Mini-malls also impart a sense of history to a cityscape which is famously impermanent. Here Opie documents, with Becher-lke objectivity, the prosaic shopping strips which have grown up around LA. Whether in Korean, Japanese, or Mexican neighbourhoods, each Mini-mall expresses the ethnic identity and social life of the community it serves, through the haphazard design of its shop fronts and signage.

“Last year, Catherine Opie drove 9,000 miles across the States, stopping to photograph lesbian families and couples en route. Domestic is a photographic ‘love poem to relationships that flourish in the privacy of the home’, a celebration of family life played out in a way very different to that imagined in the American Dream. Intimate and lush, the series marks her return to colour portraiture and continues to question what constitutes the ideal home and the ideal family.”

Kate Bush, Senior Programmer, Great magazine number 31

Born in 1961, Catherine Opie grew up in Sandusky, Ohio, and has been making photographs since the age of nine. She studied photography at San Francisco Art Institute and at CalArts, and now lives and works in Los Angeles and New York. She has exhibited widely with solo shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 1997 and contributions to important group exhibitions such as Sunshine and Noir (Louisiana Museum; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg), Veronica's Revenge (Deichtorhallen, Hamburg; MCA Sydney) and Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography(Guggenheim Museum, New York).

Sponsored by Rainbownetwork

This exhibition forms part of a series of linked exhibitions named Altered States of America, which explores passages in America's post-war life, from the optimistic years following the Second World War, to the dark days of Vietnam, to the conflicting dreams which drive America at the end of the century. In this series the continent is seen through the eyes of both insiders and outsiders.

For further information on this and past exhibitions, visit our Archive and Study Room.