Collection Spotlight: Skeeter, Catherine Opie

Title: Skeeter

Artist: Catherine Opie (American, born 1961)

Date: 1993

Medium: Chromogenic print

Edition: 5 of 8

Dimensions: 40 x 30 in.

Credit: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Armyan Bernstein and Christine Meleo Bernstein, 2018.9. Reproduced with permission from the artist.


Skeeter; Sunflowers; Sunrise

“A lot of my friends were fighting AIDS or dying. And I wanted to make a body of work that used bright backgrounds offsetting it, almost like a Hans Holbein painting.”

Catherine Opie [1]

Among the photographs in Catherine Opie’s Portraits—a series the photographer made between 1993 and 1997—Skeeter (1993) is unusual. Whereas most of Opie’s subjects make direct eye contact with the camera lens, Skeeter closes their eyes as they face left at three-quarter profile and in full-length. A pillar of sunflowers commands as much space as does Skeeter, who breathes in the flowers while seated at the table before them. In being present with these fluctuant bodies, Skeeter embodies care, quietude, and reflection. Opie’s portrait also doubles as a reflection on accepting processes of gratitude, growth, and grief.

Signaling such strength was crucial for Opie, since Skeeter and her cohort of Portraits sitters also comprise the photographer’s own chosen family of butch women, drag queens, practitioners of scarification, transgender men, body manipulators, and sadomasochists. In the early 1990s, at the height of the still-ongoing AIDS crisis, to portray the LGBTQ+ community as both present and dignified along gallery walls was—and remains—a significant political intervention.

Sir Thomas More, Hans Holbein (1497/98–1543), 1527, Oil on oak panel, 29 1/2 x 23 3/4 in. (74.9 x 60.3 cm). Henry Clay Frick Bequest, The Frick Collection, 1912.1.77

In order to ground these works in a longer art history of power through representation, Opie turned to seventeenth-century Dutch and German portrait painters like Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1497–1543) for art-historical precedent and support. The backdrop’s spectrum of dark myrtle, pine, and emerald greens and the lush green velour cloth draping the table at center evokes the equally immersive green backgrounds of Holbein’s Portrait of Sir Thomas More (1527) and The Ambassadors (1533). The vibrant yellow splashes of each sunflower’s petals brighten Skeeter’s skintone and offer reprieve from an otherwise dark and recessive setting, while the chaotic, decaying bramble on the table anchors the bouquet in a precious, fleeting time. Each sunflower’s dark brown face echoes Skeeter’s freshly trimmed black hair, black top, and laced black leather boots. They also invert the pale green glint of Skeeter’s wristwatch—a minute detail that signals the passage of time. Opie’s bold color decisions bring attention to Skeeter’s half-sleeve rising sun tattoo, which serves as a permanent reminder of renewal, vitality, courage, and energy.

In Skeeter, the strategic use of art-historical citation to portray otherwise marginalized subjects brings visual and political representation to a compelling intersection, just as it reveals the difficult intimacies and responsibilities of telling an individual, yet deeply collective, story.

— Submitted by Sarah Estrela, Block Museum Curatorial Fellow 2018-2018


Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences


[1] The Art Story, “Biography of Catherine Opie,” https://www.theartstory.org/artist/opie-catherine/

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