AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
People of the future who want to know what we looked like and how we lived might consider the work of Catherine Opie. NPR's Neda Ulaby visited Opie at her LA studio, where the artist admitted her work can also be a social liability.
CATHERINE OPIE: Staring at people's faces is a problem with me. I mean, my wife is constantly saying, you're staring at that person. And I'm just like, I'm really sorry; I'm making a picture. And I do like to stare, and I really like to look.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Catherine Opie is looking at the world today from under a butch black baseball cap. She's stocky with graying brown hair. And she's so friendly, it's easy to see how her subjects connect. But people who know Opie's early work are sometimes scared to meet her.
OPIE: Why would - why would you be afraid to meet me? Like, I'm just a nice girl who lived across a cornfield in Ohio, you know?
ULABY: Don't even. Opie knows perfectly well why. It involves the word pervert.
OPIE: (Laughter) Because I carved pervert on my chest? No (laughter).
ULABY: Back in 1994, this nice girl from Ohio was part of a queer San Francisco scene fighting against AIDS and for gay and lesbian rights. Mainstream gay politics then excluded, even shunned her community of leather folks and fans of S&M. Opie responded with a self-portrait showing the word pervert cut across her bare chest. It's disturbing, and it was Opie's art world breakthrough.
CONNIE BUTLER: I think of Cathy as a quintessentially American artist.
ULABY: Connie Butler curated the Catherine Opie show that just opened at LA's Hammer Museum. She says Opie's photographed Tea Party rallies, Obama's inauguration, surfers and lesbian families across the country. Not lots of magazine work, so she's not famous like Richard Avedon or Annie Leibovitz. Still, Butler says...
BUTLER: She's having a moment.
ULABY: With simultaneous Opie shows at three prominent LA museums of contemporary art.
BUTLER: It was really a happy accident.
ULABY: That's promoting an artist who reflects American identity now, like a self-portrait took in her 40s while nursing her baby son. She's topless and tattooed.
BUTLER: That's an incredibly powerful picture of what motherhood is and what we now know it is in this contemporary moment. You know, images like that will linger.
ULABY: That self-portrait responds to all those saintly Madonna and child images throughout art history. Opie says the projects continued with a newer portrait in a show opening this month in New York.
OPIE: But it's a beautiful naked black man holding his newborn child.
ULABY: The beautiful man is her daughter's boyfriend. The child is Opie's grandson.
OPIE: It's always about the mother, and I just really wanted it to be about the father in this moment.
HELEN MOLESWORTH: All right. Will you do the same on the side? Don't center it in between...
ULABY: Curator Helen Molesworth of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is installing another Catherine Opie show that just opened at the Pacific Design Center.
MOLESWORTH: I think she is an extraordinary chronicler of America in the late 20th and early 21st century.
ULABY: This show's unusual subject is the inside of Elizabeth Taylor's house. Opie never met Taylor, who was then still alive, but she wanted to take the star's portrait through her things - handbags arranged in rows of pink, black and red, coat sleeves pressed sumptuously together in an enviably large closet, the diamonds, of course, but also the tattered boxes in which they're stored. Molesworth says these photos fit right in with the rest of Opie's work.
MOLESWORTH: Well, I think Opie's a fetishist. Opie is like a small kid running her hand over every texture and every surface in this house and treating her camera as an extension of her hands.
ULABY: So a close-up look at a side table covered with a fusty flowered table cloth and framed photos of Taylor with Michael Jackson.
MOLESWORTH: Here she is, Elizabeth Taylor, one of the biggest stars ever, with Michael Jackson, one of the biggest stars ever. And what's at the foreground? The instructions for the TV remote control.
ULABY: There's vulnerability, even intimacy, says Molesworth, in these images of glamour juxtaposed with Taylor's every day. A more gothic portrait at the Hammer Museum features a pair of sisters, friends of Opie's known for designing cutting-edge fashion, like their costumes for the movie "Black Swan." It shows them kneeling in long dresses, embroidering what looks like blood. Opie says it's an allegory.
OPIE: They're stitching the blood drip that I no longer have, so it's a postmenopausal world for me.
ULABY: In this portrait, Opie's taking on something almost as culturally scary as S&M - women and aging.
OPIE: Blood has always been a medium that I, personally, have really valued. And it's really interesting when blood really leaves your life, even in that way that's on a monthly basis, where it's just like, oh, that substance is gone.
ULABY: Catherine Opie sees herself as a social documentary photographer.
OPIE: That photography isn't really popular right now. There's very few people who look at the world anymore. I mean, they look at the world of what they're eating, and they post it on Facebook.
ULABY: Catherine Opie's interested in using photography as a map to find our points of empathy. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.