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Crystal Bridges Acquires Work from Catherine Opie’s Portraits Series

In the 1990s, artist and photographer Catherine Opie focused her lens on individuals and her friends in the LGBTQ+ communities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the midst of the AIDS crisis, at a moment when widespread fear and vitriol sought to dehumanize the queer community, Opie’s elegant portraits asserted the humanity of the sitters and garnered her national attention. Her resulting Portraits series (1993-5) included Crystal Bridges’ newest acquisition seen here: Pig Pen

Seated against a brilliant red backdrop, Pig Pen, who uses they/them pronouns, gazes out at the viewer with a casual expression on their face. Donning a tank top, jean shorts, and heavy combat boots, the sitter cuts a strong, grungy profile. There’s a regal casualness to Pig Pen’s pose: leg crossed at the ankle and somber expression contrasting with the exaggerated jack-o-lantern emotions tattooed on either knee. This is a photo of Opie’s friend and longtime collaborator (they also appeared in Opie’s 2017 film The Modernist), and it is a testament to her skill as a photographer that she captures more in this portrait than solely outward appearance or façade. In Pig Pen, Opie shows that this person has depth―something a camera is prone to flatten.

The lush, brightly-colored backdrops borrow directly from the portraits of the sixteenth-century Renaissance painter Hans Holbein as a time-tested way of lending an air of importance and prominence to the sitters. Opie is an art history buff, and her use of certain references and techniques is often grounds for even deeper contemplation of the subject matter. Similar approaches to looking at historical references as source material for contemporary portraiture can be seen in the work of other artists in the Crystal Bridges collection such as Will Wilson and Kehinde Wiley.

While portrayed in a traditional style of portraiture, Pig Pen and the other members of the queer community photographed in this series, were people often pushed to the margins of society. By centering these individuals as the subjects of these works, Opie offers a window into each person’s inner complexity, providing honest, stunning, images that by extension, offer a space for conversations around identity, gender, and community. 

African- American woman in magenta stripped dress with vines of flowers climbing up her and weaving into the floral background
Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of a Florentine Nobleman, 2018, oil on linen, 96 × 72 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2019.14.

The museum hopes to put this work on view in the near future. 


Written by Alejo Benedetti, associate curator, contemporary art.


Artist Virtual Talk

The connections with subjects are genuine, and it’s why Opie has stories to tell about each of the locations, people, and events she photographs over the years. Enjoy this video of a virtual talk conducted with Opie in 2020 by Associate Curator, Contemporary Art Alejo Benedetti in which she shares some stories and insight of her work in the past few decades.

About the Artist

Born in Sandusky, Ohio, Catherine Opie has long been associated with California. After attending school in San Francisco and Santa Clarita, she moved to Los Angeles in 1988, arriving in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Quickly finding her place within the L.A. BDSM and Queer community, Opie by 1991 had turned her camera onto her friends. She earned a spot in the 1995 Whitney Biennial, and her Being and Having (1991) and Portraits (1993-5) series cemented her place as a revered figure within contemporary art history. In the three decades since, Opie’s subject matter has expanded to include topics as far ranging as ice fishing, high school football, and the National Parks. However, the consistent thread that links 30 years of seemingly disparate series together is something first foregrounded in her ‘90s portraits: identity and community.