For me, Catherine Opie will always be shirtless. A month ago, in a press release, I saw her naked from the waist up for the third time, and it felt like the climax of a classical, painterly triptych. The three scenes go like this: In 1993, Opie turns away from the camera and stands in front of a deep-green brocade tapestry. Carved into her hefty, bare back is a childlike drawing of two women holding hands, next to a house and a sun. The house is bleeding. The following year, she faces the camera, her head cased in a leather hood that blacks out her visage, each arm pierced by an armor of 23 thick needles, the word "Pervert" cut in cursive letters across her chest. She folds her hands in her lap, and her skin is soft and light against a backdrop of black and gold cloth. A decade later, the background is a rich red fabric, and her hands come together in her lap around a large, naked blond baby sucking her left nipple. Her 1-year-old son cannot yet read the scarred word on her chest, and it is so faint that if we didn't already know about it, neither could we.
Now consider that Opie, once considered the lesbian answer to Robert Mapplethorpe with her explicit S&M scenes and tender portraits of gender-bending friends, is coming to Tacoma Art Museum this weekend to talk about a gardening show.
When I call her at the home she shares with her partner Julie Burleigh, her son is squealing in the background at his first viewing of Lady and the Tramp. "Artist, Leather Dyke, PTA Mom" is how BlackBook magazine described her transformation last spring in a profile. But just because she has been documenting children, surfers in her hometown of L.A., rural landscapes, domestic lesbian couples, American cities, and well, gardens, she doesn't feel like she's fallen down some sexual-identity rabbit hole. "I am all those things," she says simply.
Her garden photographs in Tacoma—of estate gardens in the Hamptons, of Martha Stewart's personal hose (yes), and of the grounds at a Minnesota men's prison—were made especially for the American Federation of Arts' traveling show Contemporary Photography and the Garden: Deceits and Fantasies, and are not part of a larger series on gardens. But her other unkinky projects are her own, and not commissions. Opie has wanted to be a social documentary photographer since age 9, when she saw a Lewis Hine image of a young girl working at a cotton mill, and all of her series follow in this line, whether they shock viewers by being shocking, or at this point, by being ordinary.