self-portraiture as a performative act of self-production
Opie's series of self-portraits, printed in identical sizes over a series of years, construct a narrative, a continuity of self, with each image an independent assertion of self and the combined and accumulated representations speaking to the evolution of self.
Beginning Chronologically, in Self-Portrait/Cutting, we are presented with the broad back and pale skin of a female figure against a rich, green, baroque tapestry and thanks to the title we are immediately aware that this figure is the artist. In its installation, the figure appears at life size placing the body of the viewer in a direct relationship to the figure presented the effect is humanizing. Scale functions as a mans of creating a comparison or analogy between the viewer and the viewed. Moreover, what we are viewing is the artifact of an unseen performance. This image is not merely a photograph it is simultaneously a portrait (meant to embody aspects of its subject beyond the retinal, communicated via the retinal) but is also a performance artifact; it is in the strictest interpretation, what remains of a drawing performance.
The lines scratched and carved into Opie's back could not have been rendered by her, the are the marks of someone else rendered upon her skin, her body becoming a canvas. In a still weeping, childlike rendering we see a rendering of two pictographic women holding hands against a fragmented backdrop of a simple home, a sun partially masked by a cloud and two squiggles that function as birds. The style of the image reminiscent of the multitude of refrigerator hung children’s drawings— but this rendering is different.
This drawing is not the familiar scrawl of a purple Crayola marker, this image is carved, blood still dripping, into the flesh of a woman— added to this is the fact that the image presented depicts two women holding hands. We read into this scene a domestic portrait, that of the lesbian life. The dissonance between the style of the drawing, the means of its making and the site that it occupies suggest an upsetting of the ease with which one should be able to render their life.
Here we are confronted, viscerally with the image, this is a rendering that would be traumatic, painful— and we see no pain, only strength. We become aware of the preparation of what it would take to make a drawing such as this, the risks involved, the tools— echoing the complications obstacles that same-sex couples face in pursuing their life.
All of this contained within a format that recalls a history of portrait painting— vertical and rectangular the central figure occupies 2/3 of the compositional space and is presented in front of drapery.
In her sequential continuation of this series Opie furthers her self-making, this time turning to face the viewer in elf-Portrait/Pervert. Once again we are presented with a life-sized figure against a rich fabric ground. Despite being oriented to face the audience we are confronted with a figure whose face is obscured by an s&m mask— denied her identity we are instead confronted with the dichotomies contained within this mask. The mask claims willful surrender, strength through submission, toughness, and vulnerability bound in its obfuscating blackness which sits atop a bare-chested Opie.
Beneath the mask, once again carved into her flesh, we find the word ‘pervert’ rendered in a romantic script and anchored by a decorative flourish that arcs outward from her sternum and descends back towards her breasts. Her right nipple pierced as are both arms— each of which at least two dozen needles. As before we are confronted with the reality that this could not have been done by her hand. Who has marked her in such a way, pierced her, to whom has she claimed strength within her surrender? The viewer is left to wrestle with the text carved into her chest as a badge of pride or a marker brand imposed upon her— possibly an amalgamation of the two. In the totality of this image, we can read a claiming of the label of pervert, echoing the bondage hood in a shifting dynamic where power is gained through submission.
Her facelessness allows these two works to function as self-narrative as well as representations of the communities reflected by them— they are simultaneously vulnerable and vigorous, proclamations of identity (kinds of self) and embodiment of trauma that reflects her personal narrative as well as that of her community.
The cycle ends with Opie as a mother, referencing art historical representations of Madonna and child she embraces and projects a duality of creative forces— the artist creator and mother—the author of life. She nurses her child before the viewer, her chest feeding, nourishing and still carrying the marks of the earliest image— her former identity inescapable even as she claims this new identity. Her scars are not hidden but worn as a badge an emblem, an embracing of self both current and past. This series leverages self-representation and performativity as a means of addressing issues of queer identity as well as the artists own, personal identity in flux. The series opens the possibility of discussing and engaging the constant remaking of identity that happens both from within and without.