American life laid bare in bodies and malls

Catherine Opie | <i>Photographers' Gallery, London</i>
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The Independent Online

As self-portraits go, Catherine Opie's Self-Portrait/ Pervert (1994) must count as one of the most difficult. This is not just middle-class squeamishness. (Opie has photographed herself with 46 hypodermic needles pushed through the flesh of her arms, and carved the word "pervert" across her naked breasts with a scalpel.) Rather, it is because the picture is about utter revelation, and yet at the same time about utter concealment.

As self-portraits go, Catherine Opie's Self-Portrait/ Pervert (1994) must count as one of the most difficult. This is not just middle-class squeamishness. (Opie has photographed herself with 46 hypodermic needles pushed through the flesh of her arms, and carved the word "pervert" across her naked breasts with a scalpel.) Rather, it is because the picture is about utter revelation, and yet at the same time about utter concealment.

Embroidering yourself with your sexual preferences certainly counts as baring all for the camera, even if Opie, in an untypically pudic moment has chosen to wear a S&M mask over her head in her portrait. Even as all this revealing is going on, though, the artist's self-mutilations are playing a formal trick on us. By creating a pattern on her skin, they turn it into a layer of decoration, just like the flocked wallpaper in front of which Opie has chosen to stand. The needles and knife-wounds may penetrate Opie's flesh, but they force us to concentrate on its surface: by burrowing into her, they leave us on the outside. Self-Portrait/ Pervert is a vast (and intentional) failure: a portrait that owns up to all kinds of unspeakable things - leather fetishism, lesbianism, sado-masochistic sex - and yet finally owns up to nothing.

If, like Opie, you're of a mind to view all life in terms of gay politics, then you might like to see this as some kind of statement about liberation and conformity. Opie's self-portrait sets out to claim the world as its own. Its subtext (and not very sub at that) is "I'll-do-whatever-I- f---in'-well-like-and-if- it-disgusts-you-tough". In the event, all the image ends up doing is joining in, putting on a uniform,conforming to a pattern: a paradox which is central to Opie's work.

Look at the series of full-length portraits as you walk into her show at the Photographers' Gallery and you'll see the same thing going on. The portraits are of variously transgendered friends of the artist, some of them women dressed as men, others men dressed as women. The real point of this series, though, is that it is precisely that: a series, personalities reduced to a likeness of each other rather than to any likeness of themselves, people dressed up as things they aren't. It is, if you like, anti-portraiture. Using the traditions of studio portraits - bleached-out backgrounds, forensic lighting - Opie contrives to reveal absolutely nothing about her subjects other than their various layers of disguise.

Curiously enough, it is this same nihilism that lends Opie's work something rather like genius. You can't help feeling that there is a deeply courageous quality to her self-portraiture, a willingness to reveal in her own sexuality something that is endlessly self-defeating. Having found this oxymoron in herself, Opie finds it everywhere. At her own insistence, the artist's Pervert portrait is hung next to a picture called House #3 (Beverly Hills). The pairing is clever. House #3 shows a Californian bungalow hidden behind a pair of ridiculously ornate wrought-iron gates. These embody the same paradox as Opie's body-piercings: that is to say, their pattern-making locks us out rather than drawing us in.

It is a curiously credible view of the way the world (and particularly the American world) works. Opie's best-known body of pictures is her "Mini-Mall" series, a collection of black-and-white photographs of exurban shopping malls which the artist took over a two-year period in the mid-1990s. Like all her works, these are deeply enigmatic. A by-word for trashy urban development and Wal-Mart capitalism, the malls are raised to the status of potential icons by the mere fact of Opie having photographed them.

The rigid formula of the pictures' construction - each mall is shot absolutely parallel to the picture-plane, with a road marking the boundary between us and it - is disturbingly at odds with the sporadic nature of mall architecture. Here is a kind of social catastrophe theory in concrete form, with signs in Spanish and Chinese and an architectural babel that takes in haciendas and pagodas by way of French chateaux. What is really worrying about Opie's mall pictures, though, is the way that their own formal structure excludes us from any dialogue with their subject, with the oddness they depict.

Which, in the end, is what gives Opie's work its power. Look at her pictures and you slowly come to see that her life and her art are one and the same; that body-piercing and photography are both about the building up of layers, about a play-off between inclusion and exclusion. This show is part of a series at the Photographers' Gallery called "Altered States of America", and, in Opie's case, the title is certainly justified. By laying herself bare, she manages to do a curious thing: to persuade us that her world is normal, because the context in which it is set is so very, very strange.

Catherine Opie/ 'Altered States of America': Photographers' Gallery, WC2 (020 7831 1772), to 24 September

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