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Catherine Opie: The provocateur who photographed Elizabeth Taylor's home

Updated 2nd November 2015
Catherine Opie: The provocateur who photographed Elizabeth Taylor's home
Written by Fiona Sinclair ScottGabe RamirezOliver Bloor, CNN
Self-portrait 'Pervert' was Catherine Opie's most angry piece. In the photograph, Opie sits, bare-chested, facing the camera with the word pervert slashed into her upper body. Her arms are punctured with nails (46 of them) and her face is masked with a skin-tight black leather hood.
She took the photo in 1994 when she was "very, very concerned with the first gay and lesbian march on Washington in which there was a division between the leather community and the gay and lesbian community saying 'we're normal'. They had created this binary of 'abnormal'.
"I've never backed down, even in terms of my own fear and my own internal homophobia."
"And that was hard for me and that is what pushed me to make that piece. It was like, 'OK I'm wearing the language that you're calling me on my body and I'm just going to sit here like Henry VIII in Hans Holbein's paintings and that's what you're going to have to deal with. Think about Holbein and you're going to have to think about this image'."
The image was a double edged sword. Not only because it made conversations with her family challenging (at one point her sister in law refused to let her see her niece), but because it is perpetually referenced.

There's nothing queer about 'Freeways'

While a lot of emphasis is put on Opie's 'queer' portraits, she's a photographer with impressive range. Her abstract landscapes, profiles of American footballers, snowy icehuts, concrete freeways and the photos from President Obama's first inauguration prove this.
While her 'queer' work is impossible to ignore, it should not define her as an artist: "I remember someone called 'Freeways' queer work, and I was like, 'there's nothing queer about 'Freeways'."

Elizabeth Taylor

Opie's more recent project, 700 Nimes Road, a series of 50 large prints (boxed in a large lavender-colored silk portfolio case) or book of some 130 slates, feels very far removed from 'Pervert'. It is an intimate portrait of Elizabeth Taylor. The twist? Taylor does not feature in a single photo.
By way of their mutual accountant, Opie was offered exclusive access to Taylor's LA home at 700 Nimes Road months before her death. Of course at the time she wasn't expecting Taylor to pass during the project but when she did, Opie continued with her work, photographing her home as it was slowly deconstructed.
What links the Elizabeth Taylor series with Opie's earlier work? The theme of visibility for starters. Opie wanted to make herself and her community known: "I've never backed down, even in terms of my own fear and my own internal homophobia. So there was a lot of struggle on by behalf -- being in that fight for visibility, but it was crucial on the heel of watching my community be decimated in terms of AIDs."
© Catherine Opie, Courtesy of Regen Projects Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York & Hong Kong
© Catherine Opie, Courtesy of Regen Projects Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York & Hong Kong Credit: Catherine Opie
Taylor was the first person to make Ronald Reagan talk about AIDs. "Elizabeth Taylor was huge in terms of the support she gave early on in researching a cure or any kind of treatment.
So I liked that. It was like a continuation of that thread of thinking and being aware of what it meant to be visible in that time. And of course Elizabeth Taylor is utterly visible."

The provocateur with a conscience

While Opie admits, "I like to be a provocateur -- sure", she's also just as willing to confess that she hasn't found it easy to create her more challenging work. Her attitude is less punk-spirited than some of her work may lead you to believe.
"I was scared to death to meet Julie's (her wife) family. I was like 'please God don't let them Google me' -- you know -- how do I explain myself to them?
So yeah, there's that awkwardness, you're perpetually having to come out."
When her work went on display at the 1995 Whitney Biennial, Opie remembers having to prep her parents ahead of time: "I remember going home and showing them before and sitting with them and explaining to them what my life was really like and what I was doing.
I didn't want them to show up at Whitney museum of American art and all of sudden not know who their daughter was."

The work doesn't stare at you, you stare at it

Opie's upcoming series of portraits that are due to go on display at the Hammer in January focus predominantly on her artist friends including Glenn Ligon, John Baldessari and author Jonathan Franzen. She's trying for Joan Didion because she's "one of my biggest heros."
The work is familiar but it also feels different. Less about projection but rather reflection. "They're coming out of black," says Opie, "it's like a figure emerging from your subconscious. It has so much to do with the influence of social media on photography. It's like 'let's use memory, desire. Let's allow this to be a little more allegorical versus documentary.
"So they're meant to be stared at. This body of work doesn't stare at you, you stare at it and that's a little bit different for me as well."