CATHERINE OPIE TALK 5PM DOWN THE RAMP is what the chalk blares at me from a sign propped a little too low to the ground. I squint as I walk closer to it, enough to see “to theater” squeezed in timid, cramped letters between “THE RAMP” and the wooden frame of the sign. I veer to the left, down the ramp, and into a rather orange theater. The name of interest rests in the middle of a black screen: “Catherine Opie.” Something about it is subdued, a little blank in comparison to the chalk grinded onto the sign outside. I squint again. “2023” is written under her name, smaller and centered. And here we are, now—Catherine Opie. 2023. Breathing and together.
Opie breathes through her mouth. She projects a childhood photo of herself onto the screen and declares the child as “already a huge dyke,” standing cheerful and slanted against a midwestern suburban setting. Opie talks about the concept of identity, coursing through her eras and works of photography with a perpetually calm, if not slightly nasally, voice.
In Self-Portrait/Cutting, Opie’s back is to the camera: a childlike portrait is cut into her skin, with two stick figures in skirts holding hands in front of a house. Blood trickles in a crimson streak down one wall of a house; one wing of a seagull; one edge of a triangle skirt. Though in Self-Portrait/Cutting she stands with her back to the camera, she faces the lens in Self-Portrait/Pervert. “Pervert” is etched onto her chest, letters curling as if they were drying; needles enter and exit the breadth of her arms; a leather mask covers her face. In both portraits Catherine Opie bleeds. I stare at the photos, wait for the domed drops of blood to seep and run. They stand still. “The identity becomes the body,” I hear Opie say. “The body becomes the architecture.”
“I made them because of identity,” she continues. “Because of AIDS, because of what blood means.” Opie had photographed queer communities in California during the devastating AIDS crisis, developing one of her most renowned collections—Portraits. In each photo, her friends stand unblinking in front of Opie’s camera, certain against a sharply colored background. Her friends were dying; Opie had a camera. She captures identity within a community in the goal of representation—or to just create conversation, as artists do.
But what does blood mean? We are left wondering as Catherine Opie moves onto a different collection, fumbling with the remote every now and then. She circles its laser haphazardly around the swamps tucked in the bottom of a mountainous landscape, amusedly pointing out the details buried within her work. For the latter half of her series Portraits and Landscapes, Opie fractures a scene into vertical sections, sequencing images and playing with focus as to dip into abstraction. She continuously defines America through the often overwhelming, intensely intimate textures of the country’s terrains. My eyes flit from the glowing screen to the photographer herself, breathing into the microphone; half-shadowed in the corner of the stage. She grips the remote and waves her hands. The screen abruptly displays a blurry scene of Niagara Falls (Untitled #9). “Oh, I did it again,” Opie says off-handedly. The screen goes back to the mountains. The laser circles the swamps. I shift in my orange seat, rolling my neck to snap a crick out of it. She never explains the blood.
Opie has experimented and captured what it means to be alive within yourself, exactly where you are and how you are. She twists our perspective of queer identity, of mountainous landscapes, and of Walls, Windows, and Blood—her most recent collection. Opie’s work uses images from the Vatican and its signature museum, uniquely questioning how to activate each object in photography. The walls are somber and cut severely into the expanse of the photo; their security cameras peer down with an assumed power. The windows, serene and fractured by light, toy with the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church: they look out into the Vatican and simultaneously reflect the self. And now we arrive back at blood—I sit up in my seat.
She clicks to the next slide. The final portion of Opie’s holy trinity sequences fragments of artwork from the Vatican museum in a “blood grid.” Every photo focuses on an illustration of blood in various paintings and tapestries, aligned in a 3×4 grid. They unflinchingly bare gruesome yet expected scenes of gore and pain—reflecting, in a way, the bloody violence of the Catholic Church. As Opie clicks through several blood grids, she scrutinizes the textures of blood. “You can tell the painters had a good time with the blood,” she says. “It was their moment with abstraction—you can feel the painter being released.”
She pauses at one image. We observe it together: a thick gash, bleeding profusely from the dagger still stuck in the wound; a palm marked with the bloody remnants of a nail; a crimson arc of blood splattered on a sword. While my eyes focus into one photo, then at the whole grid, and then back into another, I faintly hear Opie talking. Something about how she never understood why her works were asked for trigger warnings, when the Vatican museum blatantly displayed gory images.
Abruptly weary, I close my eyes from the thick aftermath of blood and the voice still vaguely bewildered at the idea of interrupting art. I open my eyes blearily to a sickening feeling that I’d missed something. I blink groggily; I quietly clear my throat. I listen.
Opie is still flicking through images of her actual work, brushing through each slide with a somewhat absent-minded indifference. The real experience must be better, we are meant to presume. With its skin, with every glistening drop of blood real and in front of us. Her photography serves as a means to look onto oneself, and into one’s setting, in order to determine what space to occupy. Opie dips into each unique, vivid, distinctively tangible quality that sculpts an identity from the surrounding place: the Vatican, the mountains and swamps, neon signs in the countryside, suburban Ohio. The self is distinctively placed in the setting, and identity, and culture. Here you are, alive and breathing. What does that mean?
At the end of her presentation, several audience members pipe up with questions amidst awkward segments of silence. “I like wandering,” Opie replies to a question I’ve forgotten. “I love being lost; hate the GPS.” When she’s in a certain area for a new collection, she feels a need to learn the place: “It’s about carrying the gear with you and noticing what you keep looking at over and over again. Then,” she says, “you decide what you want your body of work to be.”
I close my eyes, consider Self-Portrait/Cutting: the red streaks, dark and thick in the Vatican, thin and diluted on her back. I think about what she used to cut herself, imagine the steel sword used to strike the holy body scraping across her own skin. I watch the blood run down the pale expanse of flesh; watch it course through mine. It follows me when my eyes open. Blood is within her, within me, coating the walls of the Church, charged with a pulsing energy to be, please, something—anything.
I still don’t know what blood means. She continues talking—ever calm, ever patient. I jerk my head to the right and feel the echo of my neck cracking. A hand raises two rows ahead of me, silently beckoning Opie’s attention. I gather my things and leave. Catherine Opie wanders on.