(Courtesy of Regen Projects)

This past Thursday, I went to a lecture and slide presentation at the Guggenheim, given by Peggy Phelan. The discussion promised to focus on the collaboration between Catherine Opie and performance artist Ron Athey. I was intrigued as I am currently working on my own performance which I am capturing on video. The video, the remaining aspect of the performance, is the portrait that now acts as “proof” or a memory. It was in this way that Catherine Opie photographed Ron Athey. The collaboration of the two artists sought to incorporate elements from a historical not so distant past, including the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. Peggy Phelan referred to Portrait Photography as a kind of performance. There is a sequence where painting becomes performance and performance becomes photography. The image of Ron Athey posed with regal drapery, and a string of pearls dangling from his anal cavity a reinterpretation of a famous self-portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe where the later, used a whip. Both works, obviously performative, call reference to Freud and “The Freudian Body” by Leo Bersani, who sought to use the psychoanalysis of Freud to delve deeper (not literally) even asking if “the rectum is a grave”.

Catherine Opie, “Portraits of Children”, (Image courtesy of Guggenheim website)

I saw the the mid-career survey of Catherine Opie a few weeks ago deliciously accompanied by the work of Louise Bourgeois. I felt fortunate to have caught the elder artists exhibition before it closed and found the work of both artists in continuum to be an echo of the roles of women from the early interpretive sculpture of Bourgeois to the photographs of the younger Opie. While sitting in the tiny theater at the Guggenheim, seeing some of these photographs now blown up in square format only one row away, I found myself a bit jarred by blood. Not only the blood of Ron Athey’s slashed back, but the blood scratched into Opie’s own body for “Pervert”, 1994. The sameness of the red wounds that they both inflicted for the sake of art, feel important and obviously relevant but also dated. One body of work that Phelan discussed and ironically is not strongly featured in the exhibition, yet made the strongest impact on me is the ongoing series “Portraits of Children” taking cue from the portraits of Walker-Evans. The series started in 2003, is much like “Being & Having” (mentioned in a previous post) whereas children are photographed “performing” for the camera. Like the end result of most of Opie’s portraits, its unclear how much direction has been given. From the three images that were shown, the format is direct portraiture, minimal actualized props, and a solid color background. The chosen children are mostly if not all very ambiguous in regards to his or her gender. Suddenly all of Cathy’s work and what may be her artistic agenda seemed clearer in the eyes of the children. I saw myself. I saw the self-conscious innocence of youth. One in particular, Jesse, shirtless and with a backwards baseball hat, stares, with big blue eyes through the lens of the camera and into the viewer. The beauty of the pose and the figure overpowers the need to identify sexuality. I feel that it is this early honesty, before one is aware of consequence where Opie shines. Performance, is best when it rings loud with truth and sometimes through the eyes of a child.

In seeking out what Lacan referred to as the Jouissance, Phelan mentioned “it is the essence that both embodies the shutter [shudder] of life and death. It is not easy to come [cum] by. It takes courage and a certain kind of embodiment.”