The Interpretive Footnote: Three Facets of Catherine Opie

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We’re almost to the mid-point of Nelson’s The Argonauts. Eighty pages in, I’ve had the students spend time in the computer lab drafting and then publishing “interpretive footnotes” in order to explore one of Nelson’s many references and see where the exploration leads. As with the interpretive definition assignment, I publish an example for them to read before they get started. 

There are no images in Nelson’s text; but she returns often to the work of Catherine Opie. We’ve discussed the images in class and I’ve had the students write about the experience of looking at Opie’s self-portraits. But, like all discussions, there’s been a lot left unsaid and there have been paths left to pursue. And that’s what I want to happen in the interpretive footnote—for the pursuit to continue, for the connections to keep sparking.

Here’s what I published prior to having the students enter the computer lab: 

Each time I passed the sign stuck into the blameless mountain, I thought about Catherine Opie's Self-Portrait/Cutting from 1993, in which Opie photographed her back with a drawing of a house and two stick-figure women holding hands (two triangled skirts!) carved into it, along with a sun, a cloud and two birds. She took the photo while the drawing was still dripping with blood.

The pacing of Nelson's description here is timed for maximum shock. If you don't know the image ahead of time, what you experience over these two sentences is a crescendo that starts with the word "blameless" and then moves from "cutting" to "carved" to "dripping with blood." The mountains that Nelson passes are blameless because they can't control what other people stick into them; they are the passive recipients of the pro-Prop 8 signs calling for the end to gay marriage.


Like the blameless mountains, has Opie's blameless back, too, been defaced? vandalized? made into a site for a political struggle? It's hard to quite know what verb to use here. The one most ready-to-hand is the one Opie provides herself--cut. But, how? Cutting, as a form of ritualistic self-harm, tends to be done on the arms or the legs. How does one cut a childlike picture of friendship or love into one's own back? So, from cutting to carving to drawing, the latter two verbs allowing the knife to turn, to shape, to compose, to redesign the act of mortification. Did Opie do this to herself? That would require fixing the knife and moving her back to create the shapes. It's more likely she had someone carve the picture for her. And then, she took the picture herself, with the blood still dripping.

The written description slows the experience of Opie's work down and it asks the reader to construct the image herself. The actual image, though, arrives immediately.

Harry and Nelson disagree about what the image means. Or rather, Nelson argues that the image means something troubling and Harry, without commenting on the image, isn't troubled by the possibility that Opie might be grieving the fact that she can't have a "homonormative" family. In this instance, Nelson settles for engaging with the art object via hermeneutics; she interprets it and extracts a stable meaning from it. And then she further locks the meaning down by citing personal information about Opie that confirms that the image is one of grieving.


This stabilizing is only temporary, however. Having introduced Opie's work on page 11, Nelson returns to it on page 64, immediately after recounting all the negative reactions her friends had to Community Action Center, a film that gave Nelson a glimpse of freedom. Ugh, one of Nelson's friends says, why did we have to stare at so many hairy pussies? As if in answer to that question, Nelson returns to Opie and observes that Self-Portrait/Cutting is "in conversation" with another of Opie's self-portraits, Pervert. The childlike picture on Opie's back is "in conversation" with "the ornate script of the word Pervert, which Opie had carved into the front of her chest and photographed a year later." And this image is in conversation with Opie's Self-Portrait/Nursing, taken a decade later, where the scars from the chest-carving remain, leaving a "ghosted" trace of the word "pervert" above the nursing child Opie cradles in her arms.

Here, it's clearer that Opie has had the word "pervert" and the ornamentation beneath it carved into her chest by another person. There are other details about the portrait that Nelson elects not to mention, details the unsuspecting viewer may well find difficult to behold: Opie is seated in this image; her head is encased in a dark black leather mask, with a brass ring at the neck; both of her arms have matching rows of flesh piercing needles running up them; she is topless; she is wearing leather pants with a leather belt; the fingers of her hands are interlaced; the posed figure seems relaxed and calm; the figure faces the camera head-on, but can see nothing.

This description also slows down the experience of beholding the image.

What is this image saying to the Cutting image?

It's the same body in both images. The self in both portraits has a face that can't be seen; it is a self that presents her body for others to see. One facet of that self entertains or entertained childlike visions of coupledom. Another facet takes pleasure in receiving pain, in submission, in being at the mercy of another. It's the same body, but visually, the desire for a partner and the desire for pleasure can't be united in a single image.


Which bring us to the third self-portrait: Nursing.

Here, in the definitively maternal act of nursing, Opie reveals her face. She looks into her child's eyes; her child looks at her. The child is too young to know what scars are, let alone how to understand their meaning. The child's sex is not revealed.

The ghosted scar offers a rebus of sodomitical maternity: the pervert need not die or even go into hiding per se, but nor is adult sexuality foisted upon the child, made its burden.

Is this image the place where Opie's identity is secured and stabilized? The one that brings her safely back within the perceived societal norms? I think it would be a mistake to force such a reading on the image either in isolation or in context of the series. The "sodomitical mother" encrypted in this image is a many-faceted self: Opie can show her face in this image because it is the image of Woman that all women are expected to fulfill. And, if the image is looked at quickly or carelessly, the scratches on Opie's chest might be missed altogether or misinterpreted as a skin condition, signs of aging, unfortunate lighting.

The three images together allow the viewer to see some facets of Opie's self, facets that sink beneath the surface when she removes the leather mask, picks up her hungry child, and turns her face to the camera. She's had non-reproductive sex and she's reproduced; she grieves, has a fantasy life, has sexual desires, has maternal desires. Doesn't that make her, in the end, a "normal" human being?

That's not the conclusion Nelson wants us to reach or that Opie thinks is true. When Nelson returns to Opie on page 74, she quotes Opie, laughing, as she says, "becoming homogenized and part of mainstream domesticity is transgressive for somebody like me." While Nelson isn't laughing along with Opie, she emphasizes the insight at the heart of the laughter: "it's the binary of normative/transgressive that's unsustainable, along with the demand that anyone live a life that's all one thing." Opie moves between the poles of that binary; engaging with her work requires that the viewer resist the pull to sap the images of their power via norm-driven acts of interpretation. Here, again, we find the call to an erotics of art, rather than a hermeneutics, as a practice for self-definition.

About the Author
Richard E. Miller has been teaching writing for over 25 years. He has blogged extensively about digital technology, the end of privacy, and the future of higher education on his website He’s served on the executive committee of CCCC and of the ADE; he’s been on the editorial board of CCC, Studies in Writing and Rhetoric, and Pedagogy (ongoing). He’s an essayist, social media fanatic, sometimes poet, photographer, multimedia composer, graphic novelist (he writes about the misadventures of his alter-ego, Professor Pawn) and memoirist.