Home and family seem stereotypically female in a way that Opie is not often considered, given her non-traditional presentations of gender. The people we see in her works are homosexual couples posed in traditional ways, of men dressed as women and vice-versa, and of tattoos and piercings that look deliberately painful. Her presentation of them staring at the camera with a direct gaze is agressive in a simple way. Yet stereotypically female too is the self-portrait of the artist holding her baby above, similar to a Madonna and Child scene, except that the luminosity and realism exposes her scarred breast where the word “Pervert” was carved for a previous portrait.
The rawness I anticipated in her work is actually a direct, at times aggressive portrayl of who people are with no apologies. She tends to present her subject–be it a person or a bridge-alone. Her portraits share the quality of formal compisition with the gaze direcly at the viewers, as well as a sense of art historical reference. For example, Opie was influnced by Hans Holbein’s use of luminous color and worldly references for a series of portraits of friends. Opie often uses ornately patterned fabrics as a background. The contrived aspect of scenes and formal aspect to portraiture lend her work a theatrical quality that is in every sense neo-Baroque.
She combines the visually gorgeous with the horrific. Two clear example are the self-portraits that involve cutting into her flesh, in which she intends to shock her message into the consciousness of America. In the first one, pictured above, she takes on what it means to be a lesbian in America in the 90s, by putting a social label on her body. The other work, showing the artist’s back cut in a childlike pattern of two figures holding hands in front of a house. The figures are two girls. This is how Opie communicates about gender and family and home–how sterio-typically domestic, no?
No, Opie is much more than that. I felt her most moving work was done of a friend and performance artist to the performance artist Ron Athey, who had recently been diagnosed with HIV. In 2000, they createded large-format Polaroids to create larger than life images of him based on past performance pieces. One strong and moving work is a lovely composition in which the precarious balance between life and death is presented as the artist lying on a bed of gold with an upraised arm from which hangs a series of neeedles. As image reproduction is severly kept in check, you would have to go to the Guggenheim to see it.