Anna McNay

Interview with Catherine Opie


Interview with Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie: Walls, Windows and Blood

Thomas Dane Gallery, Naples, Italy

19 September – 18 November 2023

The name Catherine Opie (b1961, Ohio) is synonymous with west-coast queer leather culture of the 1990s. Much to the photographer’s chagrin, people’s first thoughts are invariably still of her two self-portraits – Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993) and Self-Portrait/Pervert (1994) – for which she had images and words cut into her flesh, and, in the latter, her arms pierced with 18-gauge steel pins and her face hidden in a black bondage hood. It is not that she regrets these works at all, but that misinterpretations continue to be perpetuated. For her then, as now, the significance was the meaning of the blood in the language of those represented. In 1990s California, this spelled Aids, and her unflinching imagery still carries with it stigma and taboo; in the 2020s Vatican, well, it speaks of centuries-old violence in Christian dogma, nevertheless left uncensored for all and sundry to see. Thus, Opie travels full circle, arriving at her latest body of work, Walls, Windows and Blood, made during a residency at the American Academy in Rome in 2021 and conceived especially for Thomas Dane Gallery’s Naples location.

During her six-week residency, Opie was, thanks to the pandemic, granted unparalleled access to the Vatican, four days a week, to explore the architecture and ideologies represented within this, photographing, as her title suggests, Walls, Windows and Blood. The Blood component comprises images of bleeding bodies (and body parts) in the tapestries on display, which she has formulated into grids, which, she hopes, create a new kind of taxonomy and open up a fresh conversation.

Opening up a conversation is all Opie, who says she has never strayed too far from social documentary, has ever really hoped to do, by offering a reappraisal, a chance to challenge our relationships with iconic buildings and all that they have come to mean, and a chance to “other” things that have perhaps only ever been considered under one mainstream light.

Opie’s exhibition opens just as the new school year begins, the first in more than three decades when she will not be teaching (she was latterly professor of photography at the University of California, Los Angeles). Instead, she looks forward to more opportunities to travel and make her own work without having to “hustle” to fit it all in. Her outlook on the current global situation, especially in the US, is not a cheerful one, but she is used to battling her way through life and is glad to now at least have a voice that can be heard.

I spoke to Opie at Thomas Dane Gallery in London, during a trip she was making with her son. She reflects on her career – behind the lens and in the classroom, makes clear her passion for the medium, and shares some of her views on its place and role in the wider history of art.


Read the full interview here