Slippery Icons a Conversation with Catherine Opie

Psychology Tomorrow Magazine’s Art Curator, Matthew Kyba, in a phone conversation with Catherine Opie about her practice. Please find their edited interview, touching on topics of sexuality, identity, contemporary photography, and her historic work.

Catherine Opie "Angela Sheirl" 1993 ©Catherine Opie, Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong
“Angela Sheirl”
©Catherine Opie, Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

What are some topics or themes that you explored when you were starting out?

In some ways, I decided to make work that could be thought of as taboo in mainstream culture as soon as I started making the early portraits of my friends and really coming out in relationship to my queer identity. I really did think in the back of my head: OK this is it, I’m screwed, I’m never going to be able to get a teaching job or anything like that. But politically, it was too important to me to not go forth with the work I really wanted to make in relationship to identity.

I talk to my students a lot about the notion of fear, what do we think about in terms of silencing ourselves in relationship to any ideas about true identity, or how do we broach subjects that are considered taboo or difficult on an idea within a normative, societal level. I tell them, “Look, I came in thinking that my whole life was basically going to be shutdown to certain extent, my family was discovering more about me that maybe they weren’t comfortable with, and the opposite happened for me. Instead, I was quite celebrated for my bravery.” I talk to my students about that a lot. If you do it in relationships to bettering society and humanity, you can’t go wrong.

Are there any subjects or themes that maybe too taboo for the institution, pedagogically?

Pedagogically, the most fearful thing in relation to taboo, is violence. A lot of people said to me in my early self-portraits, “Why would mutilate yourself?” I said, “I don’t view it as mutilation whatsoever.” I was making very specific pieces that dealt with my identity under a completely consensual place. A lot of people still misinterpret or equate certain practices with violence, where maybe that’s not where it’s coming from. We had a student that was doing a performance with a gun that at one point, created a lot of fear for some people. The relationship behind violence is probably the hardest for people to understand. I had one student that was doing a performance that included her branding herself, and the rest of the faculty was very uncomfortable with it, but she was coming from a place that I understood, what she was trying to do with her body.

Catherine Opie "Self Portrait / Cutting" 1993 ©Catherine Opie, Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong
“Self Portrait / Cutting”
©Catherine Opie, Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong


Do other faculty provide resistance?

Not resistance necessarily, just misunderstanding. I would say that our art department is a very experimental, amazing art department. We had Paul McCarthy and Chris Burden for years at UCLA. Often I gauge society and ideas of the younger generation through my students because that there is a gap now in terms of years. Getting into the mind of a 19 year old, so much has happened since I was 19, in terms of the way society looks at different things that could potentially be thought of as taboo.

What about the reception of your work in 2015? How would the reception differ? And how do you interpret the gender/identity discussion nowadays compared to the 80s/90s?

Very different. This morning I looked at the Vanity Fair interview about Caitlyn Jenner. I was thinking a lot about it, it took me a long time because I was fairly skeptical in terms of the idea of the “spectacle”. The transgender movement: Have we got to a place – because it’s on a mainstream magazine cover – does it create the idea of spectacle? Then, I thought about what does it mean to come out, in all aspects of your life, and how has the transgender community been perceived in the last five years? There is a coming out that is different in the transgender community in the past five years, that goes back to coming out in the 80-90s in the Queer community. During that time, most of my friends transitioned from female to male. I would say it was much more difficult for them back then, much more so than it is now. I have one good friend who’s a practicing lawyer, who no longer needs to wear a skirt and can happily wear a suit.

I do think it’s easier now, regarding my scope of perception towards the younger generation. Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair is going to easier for that 12 year- old who feels the exact same way. I’ve has so many young gays and lesbians that came up to me and said, “You and your work has made a huge difference.” How do we transition as a society and when do things become more acceptable, is both in relationship to visibility, which is what my work has been about. In regards to visibility, it’s getting easier.

In regard to your portrait series, based on formal composition, it seems you reverse the gaze and empower your subjects. How do you feel this empowerment acting in your work?

Personally, it was about creating a position in which my subjects were able to be seen (and myself) as the acknowledgement of what visibility meant. There is an empowerment aspect that it was important, but I don’t know if it was completely conscious at the time. It just came out naturally the way I asked people to face the camera. Some elements were based on history paintings to a certain extent. One of these reasons was to create a nobility within making portraits and trying to figure out a different way to document the community other than black and white photos of them inside their homes, or maybe Mapplethorpe tropes (although he was a formalist, too). I tended to have my people be held in relationship to the camera lens.

Do you think art can spur large societal transformations?

I’ve become less optimistic through the years. I think homophobia has taken me down for a very long time. When I was younger, the portraits were more of an angry piece about how I was labeled. Some of my work was reactions to homophobia. Some was about showing my community in a beautiful and loving way as many of my friends were dying of AIDS. [For] right wing and neo-conservatives in America, I realized that my work can inform people and create a loving portrait of a community, but at the same time it will never make someone not homophobic. My recent statement was just how exhausted I am about the amount of xenophobia there is across the board. It’s not just an American issue, it’s a global issue. I’m a little less optimistic, but I’m happy about the recent changes for legalizing gay marriage (America, Mozambique, and Ireland). I’m a humanist- realize other people have differences, but be a humanist.

How do you view people in terms of costumes/appearances- do people dress up to fit a personality?

I think people are performative by nature. One of the things in the High School Football series was the vulnerability of that group of people, versus the utter masculinity that was portrayed. One of the things always present is the notion of what “icon” is, and how we view “iconic” is actually slippery and not as fixed as we think. That’s the same as how we view identity- not as fixed as we presume it to be. Just because you are a football player doesn’t mean you buy into that extreme masculinity. I discovered questions about identity; I didn’t go into the work thinking I’d disrupt the notion of masculinity, but when I went into it, my own preconceptions shattered around it.

Out of boredom comes creativity.

Catherine Opie "Papa Bear" 1991 ©Catherine Opie, Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong
“Papa Bear”
©Catherine Opie, Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong


How does America appear to you?

That’s a good question. I grew up learning a lot about American democracy and the history of it. Being a bit of an insider, growing up in a middle-class Ohio family that had issues (divorce), I started wanting to know more about the complexity of identity, and that relates to the complexity of identity. America flew their flags boldly in terms of patriotism, so my question was: What is true democracy? How can we say we have the best democracy in the world when we have capital punishment, when gays and lesbians are not given equal rights, and when we don’t have healthcare, how can we tote ourselves as one of the greatest democracies? A lot of my relationships to viewing architecture, or even mapping out different ideas of identity in relationship to how communities form, is very much in these oppositions to what was spoon fed to me in relationship to being in America.

How has teaching and having a position at UCLA altered your practice?

It’s great being around a group of young, really intelligent people that truly want to be artists; it really touches me. My work is very personal exploration, but being a teacher really makes me think of my practice, the relationship between when I was teaching at 28 and how much different it is now. I’m looking at what is photography doing; how do we think about it, how do we talk about it, how does nostalgia play into it? It may, a bit, influence how I try to create questions about exploration within my own practice.

What are some common themes that you see reoccur in student work?

I think there may be a bit less interest in documentary photography, and more in what they construct for themselves. When they do focus on themselves, it’s sometimes from an Instagram lens; some very good portraits, but it’s not necessarily trying to create a document. It’s more of a relationship with their friends. But I think that’s a product of what they are seeing. There is little contemporary art photography that is purely constructed that just explores the world. Contemporary art always influences the next generation. I think it’s really symptomatic about what they are looking at, and maybe not realizing there is this whole other history out there, because it’s not maybe taught in high school. I mean art is barely taught in high school.

I mean some students that live in LA or a larger city, go to museums because they can and that’s fantastic. But for a lot of them, they are getting their information from blogs. Most of my students read an enormous amount of blogs.

This interview was conducted by curator Matthew Kyba.


*The interview was edited for clarity and length. Unfortunately, we could not include the full transcript but please email the curator [] for any questions or concerns.

All images are by the artist, courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong



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