Thirty years ago, when the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art hosted a massive showcase of international contemporary art featuring 169 artists, just 13 of them were women. The unequal representation spawned the anonymous Guerilla Girls group, which began a campaign exposing the gender inequality in the art world. This week at Anderson Ranch, the acclaimed photographer Catherine Opie will address how gender equality has improved — and not improved — since then.
On Wednesday, Opie will join Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal and Sue Scott, authors of “The Reckoning: Women Artists in the New Millennium,” in a panel discussion on the topic. On Thursday, Opie will make a solo presentation as part of the Ranch’s ongoing Featured Artists series.
The art world has come a long way, Opie argued in an interview, since the Guerilla Girls and art historian Linda Nochlin’s watershed 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” But it still has a ways to go toward equal representation, and sales of art made by women still lag far behind men’s work.
“The question is still one of inequality in terms of gender, which certainly happens in the marketplace as well as in numbers of exhibitions,” she said. “So I imagine we’ll explore all those themes.”
Artist Micol Hebron’s Gallery Tally project has taken the Guerilla Girls’ lead, and today is exposing the ongoing unequal representation of women artists in leading galleries around the world by printing online the percentages of male and female artists exhibited.
“There is still this bizarre mythology about the male artists in relationship to genius,” said Opie. “I very rarely hear a woman being called a genius — and I don’t necessarily believe in the term — but there is this kind of mythos about the male artist, (and) the male writer, that people hold on to.”
Opie is best known for her groundbreaking portraits of men and women in the queer community in the early 1990s, and her politically charged self-portraits. Her 1993 “Self Portrait/Cutting” featured Opie with a picture carved into her back of two women and a house — a bracing representation of the LGBT community’s hope for equal rights and marriage rights.
She pointed to a few artists, like Andrea Bowers, who make feminist and politically charged work today. But her students at the University of California Los Angeles, where she is a professor of photography, and emerging artists aren’t making such charged work today, she said. Her own photos since the “Portraits” series have ranged into subjects like Wall Street, surfing and high school football.
“The younger generation of artists are not as politically active in relationship to those ideas,” Opie said. “They’re not as angry and feverish as some of the earlier artists were.”
Looking back, Opie said, her intense portraits were intertwined with what activist groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation were doing at the time in response to the AIDS crisis, pushing the gay and lesbian community from the shadows and into a vocal political constituency and part of the fabric of American society.
“Everything that was being done was because of the AIDS epidemic and that crisis,” Opie said. “That’s really what shifted things, in terms of a community that was invisible becoming visible. I was certainly playing off of that visibility in my own work, but that was co-existing with other artists and a part of the cultural revolution that was happening at the time.”
Today, she noted, her portraits of tattooed and pierced men and women don’t have the shock value they did 20 years ago.
“It doesn’t feel like, ‘Wow, what’s going on here,’” she said. “At the time they were made, people hadn’t seen images that way. Also, it’s a very different time, in which so many more people are pierced and tattooed. That manner of playing with the body, that was very much a part of the queer identity, has shifted to seeming straight.”
Though her photography has moved into other areas, including cityscapes and winter landscapes, she chimed in on the fight for marriage rights in 2011, when she and filmmaker Lisa Udelson made the documentary “Same Difference,” about the children of parents whose marriages were challenged by California’s Proposition 8.
“That’s about all I’ve done for gay marriage, except for planning my own wedding,” she laughed.