Catherine Opie is one of my biggest, most fanatical art crushes. I encountered her phenomenal portraiture in my first year of graduate school. I was taking a course on modernist art movements and came across the work of Claude Cahun, a queer, genderqueer artist affiliated with the Surrealists who engaged in practices of photographic self-portraiture that played, critically, with sexual ambiguity, androgyny, and the notion of the of the camera as an objective and truth-telling documentary device.

Claude Cahun, from Untitled (I am Training, Don't Kiss Me), 1927-1929

My infatuation with Cahun led me quickly to the oversize books section of my university’s Fine Arts Library, where I encountered Jennifer Blessing’s wonderful tome (and exhibition companion) Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography (Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1997). The title of this exhibition is gleaned from a line of Gertrude Stein’s from Sacred Emily that plays with identity, appearance, seeming and being – get that story here.  Blessing’s work explicitly draws points of queer, feminist connection between the work of Cahun and the work of Catherine Opie.

I’ve selected a detail of a piece by Catherine Opie entitled “Chicken” (1991), from a series of portraits entitled “Being and Having,” as the header for this blog for several reasons. First – it is of a mustache, a hirsute phenomena that’s undergoing a pretty stunning renaissance currently. Head over to etsy, and you can find mustaches on coffee mugs, on ties. JD Samson, formerly of Le Tigre and now of Men (if you haven’t heard them, go now and do so), proudly sports both a mustache as well as a script tattoo on her chest reading ‘Mustache.’ I have too many friends and acquaintances, male and female alike, who are letting the follicles on their upper lips grow out, in a wonderful diversity of forms (some soft fuzz, some full-on handlebar action, others opting for that delightful curlicue, others going straight Chaplin). Mustaches are breaching gender boundaries, appearing all over the place, on all sorts of bodies. Some grown, some sketched on with eyeliner, some artfully constructed with adhesive and bits of hair from other parts of the body (a drag king technique, yes). The mustache, a powerful icon in the pantheon of masculine symbology, is being appropriated in all sorts of fabulous ways.

Catherine Opie, "Chicken", from the Being and Having Series, 1992

Opie loves the mustache, and loves it on all sorts of folks. The gendered loaded-ness of the mustache makes it the perfect sort of trait to appear in this portrait series of Opie’s, “Being and Having,” which documents a collection of queer masculinities and provocatively raises, through the combination of title and image set, questions regarding the status of gender itself, questions we’ll be consistently preoccupied with in this course: is gender something we are or something we have? Is it a set of properties that can be appropriated or eschewed at will (a set of accessories, a tool-kit of sorts), or does it irrevocably constitute our being? Does it, or can it, work in both of these ways at once? Do we have gender, or does it have us?

Consider Opie’s work as a provocation and invitation to mull these questions over.

– Hilary Malatino

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