In the late 1990s, Catherine Opie drove across the country, taking photos of lesbian families in and around their homes. The resulting series, Domestic, (which Opie, who herself is gay, said was an attempt to document “the lesbian dream’’) contains a still life of a washer and dryer, which the photographer joked was “a lesbian washer and dryer.” Because, as she put it, “it’s the same thing.” An ongoing pair of solo exhibitions, Portraits and Landscapes and 700 Nimes Road, at the Lehmann Maupin gallery locations in Chelsea and on the Lower East Side, respectively, also readjust our expectations about the artist and her long-held role as a “provocateur.”
In combination with her portraits of the LBGTQ and BDSM communities which she knew well (see: Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), a striking photo depicting the artists’s own self-mutilated back, criss-crossed with razor slashes depicting two women holding hands) this series helped put Opie on the map as one of the most important American photographers working today.
Opie’s latest show, 700 Nimes Road, is also invested in making underrepresented worlds more accessible, without denying their specificity. The exhibition, which opened Thursday is a series of domestic still lifes— this time from behind the front door of Elizabeth Taylor’s mansion in Bel Air. There are no laundry rooms pictured, but the message is similar: no one is alien, no one is immortal. “[I am] humanizing celebrity,” Opie told B + B at a book signing this weekend at the gallery’s Lower East Side location. “When you get inside the home, these little moments and glimpses create […] a larger idea of intimacy.”
It was William Eggleston’s images of an imperfect Graceland– cheesy carpeting, “love me tender” graffiti and all– that helped inspire Opie to begin the project. She was attracted to the photographer’s ability to “deflate the sense of celebrity” and “preserve the sense of authorship.” To complete this “indirect portrait,” Opie spent six months exploring Taylor’s home at 700 Nimes Road, taking 3,000 photos of everything from the actress’ billowy pink curtains to her trophy collection and Koi fish pond, which she then edited down to 50 images.
Opie, who has long been interested in the fabrication of identity, focused her lens on the tools and decoration Taylor used to become Elizabeth Taylor. The actress’ shelves are chock-full of cowboy boots and handbags. Her vanity table teems with lipstick, tweezers, compacts, brushes of every shape and size, and her windowsill is lined with Chanel heels. Opie captures textures brilliantly– you can almost feel what it would be like to run your fingers along the star’s silky dress suits and sumptuous fur coats.
It’s probably not surprising that, as a photographer, Opie pays particular attention to Taylor’s photography collection. In one photo, Taylor is meeting with the Clintons. Next, she is nuzzling her newborn son. These corners of Taylor’s world feel more relatable precisely because they are more specific, more personal. Her nightstand is cluttered with pictures, nail files, pens, paperweights, and a remote control instruction manual. A number of images pay homage to the actress’s Maltese terriers (I counted at least five doggy figurines).
All these pictures are made more poignant by the fact that Opie never had a chance to meet Taylor– who doesn’t appear in any of the images– and who passed away midway through the project in 2011. The last photos in the exhibit show the star’s extensive jewelry collection, ready to be auctioned at Christie’s. One picture shows a yellow chiffon dress “for Richard” (presumably Richard Burton, Elizabeth’s ex-husband) lying horizontally in a box. It resembles an open casket.
As Opie explained, these photos are “about the link to memory, the link to desire, the link to flesh.” The still lifes serve as modes of portraiture as well as commemoration. Through them, Taylor stays present.
The concurrent show, Portraits and Landscapes, also deals with themes of mortality and memory. Abstract landscapes and formal portraits of Opie’s friends and family are featured in this exhibition, as are celebrities of the artsy variety, such as John Waters, Miranda July, and Kara Walker. Opie described her relationship with these subjects as “a history of love […] I can’t stop looking at them, and they keep agreeing to sit for me. It’s about a continuum of time and that we can all grow up and old together.”
These photos are reminiscent of 17th-century European portraits, complete with a black drop cloth, dramatic chiaroscuro, and oval-shaped frames. Each sitter looks iconic, even regal, but also vulnerable and lifelike. Swimmer Diana Nyad sports a pair of toned, leathery brown legs. The conceptual artist John Baldessari, whose face is most familiar to us as a handsomely white-bearded though expressionless mask, looks bleary but peaceful.
Opie uses her camera to honor and preserve what is beautiful, strong, and lovable about the people around her and the untouchable celebrities she has access to. While she is perhaps known best for her photographs representing the queer, transgender, and BDSM communities (subjects that both satisfy a sense of voyeurism and are in line with the interests of some of her stylistic predecessors like Robert Mapplethorpe), her newest shows remind us that for 30 years her work has been much more diverse and far-reaching. She sees people, from Elizabeth Taylor to her dearest friends, the way we all want to be remembered.
Portraits and Landscapes, on view at the Lehmann Maupin gallery located at 536 West 22nd street in Chelsea, along with 700 Nimes Road on view at 201 Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side, January 14 through February 20.