Collected Works: Art
by Catherine Opie
She stands facing away from us, thick, crisscrossing straps meeting in a metal loop at the centre of her spine. A matching cuff gently squeezes the flesh of her upper left arm. Her right hand runs through dyed hair, decked in a fingerless glove decorated with pyramidal studs. Finer accessories adorn her neck: a light chain and a black, gauzy scarf. One earlobe is punctured twice. A tilt of the head prevents us from checking the other for symmetry, just as one hand is hidden from view.
The work is part of Catherine Opie’s Girlfriends series, a photographic collection of friends and lovers that the artist began in the mid-eighties. The title puts us on first-name terms with Gabby, but the parentheses that follow emphasise what we cannot see. The image is charged with sexuality, with the suggestion that the front of the woman’s torso is as exposed as her back. We are permitted a view from behind, a tantalising glimpse of the side of the face, but perhaps Opie has seen more.
This sense of intimacy is intensified by the photo’s simplicity, and by the closely cropped square frame. Gabby’s left elbow skims the bottom edge; her short, platinum hair nearly brushes the top. The backdrop is rendered in soft focus, leaving nothing to distract us from the body that dominates the visual field. In the absence of colour, we concentrate on texture: the diaphanousness of the chiffon; the pliability of hair; the softness of body fat; the uneven terrain of mole-dotted skin.
Although frank in its sensuality, the portrait refuses to pander to the voyeuristic gaze. Gabby is faceless, but not a fantasy. Opie captures both her subject’s personality and the solid reality of her being. Yet, with her back forever towards us, she remains an enigma. Her pose may convey confidence, or imply vulnerability. She may be reluctant to turn around, to reveal all, to confront our scrutiny. In any case, the black cross formed by the leather fastenings warns us that Gabby will not be laid bare.
Words by Emma McKinlay †
More to discover
You can view a selection of Catherine Opie's artworks on the Stephen Friedman gallery website here, and watch videos about the artist by The Museum of Contemporary Art, LA (MOCA) here and here. Kate & Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte have interviewed Opie for The New York Times, as have Suzanne Muchnic for Art News, Neda Ulaby for NPR, and Amy Kellner for Vice.
Question of the day
I'm Desperate by Gillian Wearing. Wearing's revealing photograph articulates the innermost thoughts of an anonymous passerby. (→)
– Katherine Fieldgate, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Patreon →)