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Catherine Opie, “Self-portrait/Cutting” (1993)
Catherine Opie, “Self-portrait/Cutting” (1993)Regen Projects

Catherine Opie on where she finds beauty in the world


TextAlex Peters

‘We have to question the ideas that surround beauty – I don't think that real beauty is easily defined, otherwise it's cliched’

Self-described bad-ass butch dyke Catherine Opie has always used her art to challenge prevailing notions of the female body, family, queerness, gender, and masculinity. Through her intimate portraits documenting everything from butch culture in LA to American high school footballers to turning the camera on herself for the most extreme of her images, Opie finds and brings to the foreground the beauty in things usually seen as subversive or undesirable. 

Now, in a new essay written for CNN, Opie explores conventional perceptions of beauty, how she has confronted these notions throughout her career and the places where she herself finds beauty. “Beauty is complicated,” she writes, “I don't think that real beauty is easily defined, otherwise it's cliched.” Here’s how she defines it.

IN THE POLITICAL

Surprising no-one, Opie says that she finds an enormous amount of beauty in being political. 

“Beauty isn't necessarily surface-level; it can also be about one's personal life and contain conflicting ideologies,” she writes, adding that by creating an aesthetic in your art using elements of beauty you can draw in the viewer and then you push their boundaries by posing questions through the art. For Opie, she says, it’s important to really capture the attention of the viewer, “for me, beauty is also about being held.” 

She herself experienced that captivating feeling when viewing portraits of women who have just given birth by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra. Highlighting the often hidden realities of childbirth – blood running down a leg, caesarean scars – Opie says she finds beauty in the honesty of the images.

IN MASCULINE VULNERABILITY

Through her tender portraits on high school football players in the 2000s, Opie looked to explore and highlight both the players’ vulnerability as well as their performance of masculinity. 

This exploration of how gender is performed was also the main question of her 1991 “Being and Having” collection in which Opie and her queer friends including her longtime friend Pig Pen acted out exaggerated masculinity. “Pig Pen is beautiful to me – it's in their butchness, the way they hold their body,” she writes. “I'm drawn to the slippage of identity.” Reflecting on the presence of their friendship which spans decades, Opie finds beauty in the meaningful relationship. “Sentimentality and nostalgia can also shape our perceptions of beauty,” she writes. 

IN AGEING

“Today I think we're getting around to understanding that it's also important to show people who are aging. There's something beautiful to that,” Opie writes.

Contemplating the portraits of John Baldessari, David Hockney or Edith Windsor, all taken in their 80s, Opie emphasises the beauty of longevity and representing the transitions of a person's body throughout their life. “Youth culture isn't the only important area to explore in beauty and fashion,” she says. 

IN QUESTIONING THE NORM

“We have to question the norm. And if we question the norm, then we question ideas that surround beauty,” Opie writes. Reflecting on her identity as a butch dyke, as a “big woman,” as a mother, as a participant of the queer BDSM community, Opie writes that artists who challenge the idea that only a certain type of person or body can be valued show that “the other” can be beautiful too. 

Discussing her work “Self-Portrait/Pervert” in which she had the word ‘pervert’ cut into her chest, Opie says it is a little too extreme for her now but it was important to make. “I was talking about beauty in it,” she says. “It engages you; it's very well-designed. For a large queer body to both hold space, and to seduce you, was a radical concept.”

As a big woman and a butch dyke, Opie says though she sometimes struggles with her body, “I still find it really beautiful in terms of what it can do.”

IN KINDNESS

Ultimately for Opie, beauty is about kindness and compassion. “I see an enormous amount of hatred these days. It's troubling,” she writes. “I didn't think that we would return to this level of bigotry.” In response to the times we are living in, Opie says we have to figure out how to support each other and treat people with decency. 

“It's important to realise that beauty is actually tied to ideas around happiness. How do we become fulfilled in that way? And can we fulfil it through acts of kindness?”

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