Funded by the museum’s first emerging artists award, Catherine Opie’s photographs of freeways and mini-malls were on view at MOCA this winter. While her portraits of queers in the 1995 Whitney Biennial established Opie’s international reputation, she has a pointedly photographed architectural subject, including master planned residential communities in Valencia, Mansions in Bel Air and Beverly Hills, and dilapidated Victorians in MacArthur Park. Recently, she participated in the LA Forum’s “Fake Esta Te” lectures series, which investigated uses of architecture by LA artists.
RA: The first thing I want to ask you about is the photograph of yours that I like the most: the self-portrait “Cutting” from 1993. Did you draw it first on paper?
CO: Yes – over and over again for about a year. I knew that I wanted to do a cutting on my back of it after a relationship had broken up. When I talk on the phone I doodle the whole time and for a year that was the doodle that just kept coming out.
RA: What I noticed, when I looked at the image again recently, was the house with the smoke coming out of the chimney.
CO: That’s because my dream house will have a fireplace in it.
RA: It’s your dream house?
CO: It is. It’s about an idealistic view of what domesticity is, and what I want from it. It is tied up with wanting that relationship where you grow old with someone and you have this really nice house with a fireplace and I go out and mow the lawn. One of those stick-figure girls would be me. Usually I wouldn’t wear a skirt, but the only way to make it lesbian in stick figures is to have them both wear triangular skirts. I don’t necessarily think that girls have to wear skirts.
RA: If you drew a butch-femme couple…
CO: … it would look just like a straight couple. Right.
RA: In your lecture you showed a few photographs from a series you are currently working on, but have yet to show, entitled “Lesbian Domestic.” Is “Cutting” the first image in that series?
CO: Yes, exactly. That was the catalyst. I’ve been working on the Domestic series since 1993. It’s a really difficult series because I photograph people and then they break up. Then I begin to question this ideal of longevity and domesticity.
RA: I suspect that a lot of people will stress the “Lesbian” half of that title. I’d like to look at “Domestic” for a moment. What is it about a house that you are idealizing? Is it the same as idealizing the relationship?
CO: Maybe it is. There is an idealization of family and what constitutes family in the American dream. What I was told growing up was, “You work hard, you buy a house.” Working hard equals home ownership in my family. The idea is that if you own your own home, you’ve made it somehow. But then the American dream is such a joke, and throw in homosexuality on top of it, which is not supposed to be a part of the American dream, and it all ends up getting really mixed up.
RA: On the one hand it is a paradox because it’s an American dream to which lesbians aren’t supposed to have access. On the other hand it seems like a perfect fit. I’m thinking of the way women have been historically associated with houses while men are associated with the public sphere.
CO: But still, “A man’s home is his castle.” It’s never “A woman’s home is her castle” because she’s not supposed to be the homeowner.
RA: She’s the homemaker. She’s at home waiting for him. So if there are two women there then they’re not waiting?
CO: They’re not waiting. Neither of them are waiting. And then, who knows whose castle it is?
RA: When you first showed “Houses and Landscapes,” the work seemed to have shifted suddenly from people to buildings. You were already recognized as a portraitist, and some critics proposed that your pictures of houses are also portraits. Is that how you think of them?
CO: The houses are portraits in that they’re not architectural photographs. They certainly talk about style in terms of architecture, but as far as the history of photography representing architecture goes, these break all those rules because they’re so flat. They’re straight on and they’re not about shape, which is the way in which one would usually describe architecture. They are portraits in the same way that I make portraits in the studio. So they were right in thinking about it in that way. It’s about the façade and how communities develop and how we look in terms of language. The thing that I find fascinating about these homes is their awkwardness visually. Architecturally, they are phenomenal because they’re trying to be all these different things, all these different identities. And I find that just as interesting as my own community in how they construct the outside appearance of their facades and what they try to be.
RA: Is there an analogy between series, where the façade of a building is like the façade of a person? The architectural ornament…
CO: …is like the tattooing. Exactly. I think that it’s about signage, it’s all about a certain kind of signage throughout my work. All of this work has to do with how powerful I think images are in preserving history or in the construction of history as signage. One of the reasons I switched from documenting communities outside of my own to my own community was that, politically, it was really important at that time period. I can’t say this for sure, but if it had been a different climate politically, if AIDS wasn’t around, if there wasn’t a huge right-wing agenda attacking homosexuality, I might have still been roaming around in my car looking at other communities like I was doing.
RA: The other series don’t have the same political impetus?
CO: Not the houses and not the freeways, but the mini-malls do. The mini-malls are about immigration and about the fact that we’re now in the 90’s in a corporate culture, and these mini-malls – these bizarre, stupid, ugly structures – exist as a central meeting place in the community. Beyond the church, the mini-mall is a family meeting ground where all these families come to have lunch every day. It’s away from the Starbucks, the Noah’s Bagels, the Jamba Juice, the Koo Koo Roo. The mall is about how, in a huge gigantic place like Los Angeles, we can still have this idea of the small shop owner. They are town squares. And they’re weird. They’re so great. The signage is so important because when you’re wandering, you know exactly what community you’ve arrived at in LA because of the signage on the mini-malls.
RA: Some architects would say that the buildings you choose to photograph are 101 examples of bad design. Either they make stylistic mistakes, like the mansions, or they are unplanned, like the mini-malls. What do you think of that standard of judgment about what makes good architecture?
CO: There are always huge mistakes in the houses. They’re a postmodern mess. It’s about hierarchy. There are certain things that I find in good architecture, such as Craftsman houses, but this high/low culture thing – I try to work against that. I photograph in a certain way so that there’s an importance placed on every subject.
RA: They may share their status as “low culture,” but the people seem to display an agency that the buildings don’t. Haven’t they put the details on their bodily surfaces intentionally?
CO: Well, no. They have done it on purpose, but a lot of what goes on the body in terms of tattoos isn’t completely planned out architecturally either. Some people do a full sleeve where it’s all totally planned out, but some people choose to have a lot of different styles on their arms.
RA: Some people plan their bodies architecturally?
CO: I think they do. I plan my body architecturally. I figure out what design does. For most of my friends when they’re completing their bodies and their tattoos, design and placement and everything is symbolic. I’ll eventually have this arm sleeved, so that my cuttings and tattoos will end up all relating to one another. Even though there are all these different styles of tattoos, it will all have some kind of reason for being there.
RA: This may be too literal, but are you saying that your body is like a mini-mall, in that it happens over time and is partly planned but partly not?
CO: Yes. It’s accumulative, whereas some people I know don’t do accumulative. Some people go in, and they’ll plan from here to here [shoulder to wrist] an entire sleeve, and it has to all go together. I’m more interested in history. I like that whole sleeve, and I like the way it looks, but I’m more interested in what happens if this tattoo is eight years old, and then what happens down the line. It’s like building a building really slowly, I guess. Because all of sudden something that might have happened in my life, or some kind of connection, will end up being part of the architecture of my body.
RA: Architectural theory has argued many times that the best way to make a good building is to make it like a body. The values are usually different from the ones you’re using, terms like solidity, permanence and proportion, rather than accumulative and history.
CO: But I think that’s fascistic. You know that gets into fascist architecture in a certain way. That’s something I’m interested in getting away from, this idea that the perfect body would be the perfect building. I’m not interested in that notion of perfection. I don’t believe in it.