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The Promised Land

The Promised Land


When visitors and patients walk into Hillcrest Hospital in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, they will come upon a series of contemplative photographs taken on the edge of Lake Erie. The soothing pinks, blues, and grays shift and dance through the lineup of 22 prints, capturing the four seasons of the year where the lake meets the sky. The horizon line is constant, a ruler-straight demarcation running through the dead center of every photo. What makes the photographs in "Somewhere in the Middle" most surprising is not that each one is presented vertically--unlike most landscapes, which are photographed horizontally to make the most of the panorama--but that they were taken by Catherine Opie.

One might judge by these meditative shots that the photographer--who has shot for On Our Backs magazine and became known for her groundbreaking portraits of S/M dykes in leather--has lost her edge. But a look at "Empty and Full," an exhibit showing at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art until September 5, reveals that Opie's sensibility is as queer as ever. She may no longer shoot in-your-face gay subjects, but by considering classic American landscapes Opie is creating a body of work that's as much about finding identity as her portraits of lesbians and transgender folks were in the early 1990s.

"I've heard that before: Cathy Opie's sold out, she just does pretty landscapes now," Opie herself says. But not many years ago she did a series of large-scale Polaroids of controversial performance artist Ron Athey doing extreme body art. And, of course, when the Guggenheim Museum in New York presented a retrospective of her work in 2008, Opie had the museum selling hats emblazoned with the word dyke.

"I think that the more people can operate in the vastness of what they are truly interested in, if you can incorporate that, then you're living a more interesting life and having the freedom to live a truth that's much more interesting," says the artist in her Los Angeles studio.

The body of water in "Empty and Full" is the Pacific Ocean, framed in vertical fashion, similar to the Lake Erie photos, but taken at sunrise and sunset while on a 10-day journey Opie made aboard a container ship traveling from Korea to Long Beach, Calif. The images are positioned on the perimeter of the exhibit, surrounding two T's of photographs taken at mass gatherings of people: President Obama's inauguration, Tea Party rallies, a Boy Scouts of America convention, and the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Opie is depicting the water that bounds part of America while she is gazing at some of the country's most contentious events. "I wanted to create a potpourri of all these voices believing in their own ideology," says Opie. "I didn't want it to just be from a queer perspective."

Yet she cannot avoid a queer frame of reference. "I thought it was time to represent the incredible diversity and defensiveness of American democracy," she explains. "These pundits articulate the incredible freedom [we are granted in this nation]. At the same time, they go and protest us." For the photos, originally conceived for a project proposed for the American Pavilion of the Venice Biennale (the proposal was rejected), Opie attended rallies and started shooting people not as a photojournalist or even, she says, as a portraitist, but as a landscape photographer. Opie focused on the expanse of people, taking in the colors of the American landscape, most notably, red, white, and blue -- on the T-shirts of people opposing immigration reform and on the flags draped over coffins at a peace march or being waved at a Tea Party rally. "So, except for the Michigan Womyn's Festival, which didn't have a lot of American flags," Opie points out, laughing, "there's an interesting common visual through-line." This led her to wonder, "What is American identity? I'm so interested in the fact that one can think of themselves as having a singular identity as an American but then have no room to see how incredibly diverse that is."

Helen Molesworth, who curated the ICA exhibit, was attracted to Opie's latest work in part because there's a poetic parallel in showing pictures of Tea Party rallies at a museum overlooking Boston Harbor. "What I'm really drawn to is the level of respect and civility that is in the work," says Molesworth, who is a lesbian. "We're living in a political moment of such rampant disrespect and lack of civility in our public discourse. Those people would have me not exist. Cathy takes pictures of people who hate her with the same degree of respect that she has demanded queer people be afforded. Opie's [also] a girl who makes a real pretty picture, and I wanted to show that. Part of what I think makes Opie a great artist is that she's capable of making very different kinds of pictures."

There has always been an unapologetic honesty to the portraits Opie creates. Whether a self-portrait -- one of her most famous images is of Opie breast-feeding her son, Oliver -- or a classical image of a high school football player, Opie's work has a dignified beauty. "I have a quietness with people when I'm photographing them," she says. "They really trust me standing before me. We're able to create connection. I think that's why the portrait connects to viewers as well--there's obviously already a sense of connection that exists in the pieces."

A similar feeling of comfortable connection arises while just sitting with Opie in her white-walled studio. The photographer projects an easy warmth from the first greeting. When you ask her a question, her eyes bore into you, unblinking, and she answers with absolutely no distraction. The room is lined with the photos of Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio, where Opie lived until she was 13, when her family moved to a community just outside San Diego. The waterscapes have an undeniably calming effect. "I actually think it's become this important place of meditation," she says. "That's what this work has ultimately done for me. Water is my favorite place to be. I don't have time in my daily life at times, but I get to go off on these trips and be alone with myself, staring off into these vast places of water."

Opie's life certainly is full. There's her photography, her teaching (she has a tenured position at the University of California, Los Angeles), and her family. In 2001 she and her partner, Julie Burleigh, bought and restored a 1908 Craftsman house that had become a crack den in West Adams, a neighborhood on the edge of south Los Angeles.

"Being a lesbian family in West Adams versus being in West Hollywood, it's a very different idea of how one can build a community," says Opie. Burleigh has taken on the community-building role full-time: She has a business, My Home Harvest, designing and building home vegetable gardens. "It really changed the neighborhood--it got us out, knowing each other," says Opie, laughing. "Community gardens build community. It actually works!" Burleigh also raises chickens for eggs in their front yard.

But, at 50, Opie hasn't mellowed completely. Her ties to the leather community remain strong. "I still have all my friends, but I stopped playing when I had Oliver," she says. "When you're single you can get on a plane and go to San Francisco, but I haven't had much desire or time."

Perhaps the surest sign of the mainstreaming of Opie is hanging in the White House residence. It's called Lake Michigan (Four Seasons). "Good for them to put this work in the residence to make a statement that this work is important," says Opie, a steadfast supporter of President Obama. "I've been having a very hard time with the amount of criticism Obama has received from liberals--'He sold us out' and all that. I think the fast-food culture has ruined our ability to slowly work in relationship to creating ideas of change, and I think it's really a shame."

Her small solace as she considers the current state of America: "I hope that looking out at Lake Michigan creates a little moment of calm for [the president] amidst the storm," says Opie, smiling at the thought.

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