Julian Opie speaks to Gil Blank. Originally published in Influence magazine, Issue 2, 2004.
Gil Blank: How do you generate your portraits: Does it begin with a photograph, or do you work from memory? Is it some combination of those methods?
Julian Opie: You could say that it starts from the desire to add to a project that exists, that work starts at the end of a previous work. I'd been drawing some full-length figures, based on photographs of people - my assistant, my wife, anyone who was around, really. I would then draw over them, copying some male and female lavatory symbols that I'd bought, transposing that symbol over the figure and then adjusting it to fit the person I had photographed. I did that for a while, becoming more used to how to draw the people, and being able to pick up more detail about the people while still retaining the lavatory symbol quality, finding a balance where that was possible. It occurred to me then that if one took that balance that was on the full figure and focused on the head, it would almost be like taking a few steps forward: the head might come more into focus while maintaining the same level of abstraction. I started with photographs that I had in my scrapbook, first using my wife, then photographing the guy that runs the cigarette store next to me, and some people in the cafeteria. I use a drawing program called Adobe Illustrator, and you can import a photograph into that program and have it as a background and draw over it.
So it was indeed done by hand.
Well, yes and no. I use a pen and a graphics tablet. You draw a map, but it's not true freehand drawing. You could do it that way, just dragging the pen and having the line follow, but I use it as a vector program, which means that you plot a series of points, and then you pull the line between them. It's a bit like a piece of stiff string or wire. The program provides you with handles on the vector points with which to manipulate the lines according to smooth, mathematical algorithms. If you're drawing a leg, for instance, you've got a point at the top of the thigh and a point at the foot, and another point on the other side of the foot, and a couple more for the knees. I try to use as few vector points as possible. That's always the challenge: to get the portrait to look as much like the person, and to make them look good, but at the same time keeping the vector points to an absolute minimum. It's a balance, with the head being a circle, or in the case of the portraits, the eyes just being blank circles. If you put too many vector points in, then the blank circle eyes look silly, and if you don't put enough in, then you just get a generic face.
That is the key, isn't it: defining the horizon line of recognition. It's a challenge for the viewer to decide at what point we can or want to identify with an image, as well as for you as the artist, because even with the technological removes of the tablet and the vector points, you still have to make subjective judgments about what elements to leave in and which to take away from the original photograph.
It's all the more interesting with a human being because I use the idea of what is or isn't recognizable as a way to understand whether I've got the drawing right, though in a certain sense it doesn't really matter. I mean, who cares whether it looks like my sister or not? It could look like someone else as long as the drawing's good. But getting it to look like her gives me a benchmark to know that I'm getting at something, and I feel that the more it looks like the sitter in some way or other, the better the drawing. I'm aware that by rendering images of people, you're entering into all sorts of unknowns; it's a problematic thing to draw. That's partly what was so exciting about trying to do it, because it seemed so impossible.
In fact, calling them "portraits" might not be appropriate at all, because the person - even if it's just a photograph of them, or our memory or impression of them - is just the departure point for a much more convoluted exercise in communication and understanding. Are you suggesting that our recollection and primary experience of the subject is utterly immaterial to the final image?
The way I go about making my work is based in a vaguely minimalist background. So I try to take the fewest number of simple, understandable steps during the image formation and see what happens. Having said that, however, I don't think that's all there is in the final product. The work functions on the edge of one's control, or knowledge. So I could tell you the steps that I take in making the work, and I try to be as logical as possible, but it's still quite difficult for me to understand fully what the presence of the person in the final picture does.
I was wondering whether there is in fact any of that presence left, or whether you're not proceeding with a step-wise evisceration of the original subject's presence.
On the contrary! I think that the more the person seems to be present, as an individual, the more tension there is in the picture.
Tension, because it's so evident that the fabric of the original subject or experience teeters on oblivion.
It's trying to find the balance between the dual roles that each of us inhabit, as both a generic type in society - a white male artist, or whatever image you have of yourself - and as a floating consciousness which happens to find itself in an aging body and goes through a life vaguely organized by arbitrary priorities. When you go to an airport, for instance, and you've got your passport, you know who you are, your passport tells other people who you are, and so perhaps that's one sense of who you are. If you want to portray someone, you could give their eye color and height and nationality and insurance number and so on, and that is who you are, but on the other hand, that's clearly not entirely how we see ourselves. That's not how you would describe yourself. I want to try to draw people - or anything else, cars, buildings, whatever - in a way that comes closer to reality.
But which reality is that? The more pragmatic reality of a life that depends on appearances, that acknowledges the impossibility of ever penetrating the surface of things? Particularly in the realm of portraiture, that would seem to deny our ability to ever know any of those metaphysical aspects of each other that you simultaneously suggest are so urgent.
I do boil it down, but not to a simple black circle, which theoretically would be enough as a drawing of a head. If I boil it down, it's because we are boiled down. If you look at humans in a certain way, then it pretty much makes no difference whether you choose one or the other. To my mind, if you were to do a portrait of a person and it didn't look the same as everybody else, you'd be missing a lot of reality. But on the other hand, we are all different, as we know. So I'm trying to draw something that pulls those two things together, and I think that the closeness of those two self-images and the tension that lies between them interests me.
There's also the famous-subject thing, which is another variety of paradox. What people do in their lives became quite a part of the work, because I used it in the titles. Titles are important, and people do take quite a lot of notice of them, surprisingly enough, so I try to take advantage of that. I put people's jobs next to their names in my titles because I felt those two bits of information had a big effect on how you looked at the work. You have a different take on the image if someone is called "Jill" rather than "Veronique," because you know where names come from to a certain degree, like "Manuel" versus "Phillip."
"Housewife" versus "Estate Agent."
Yes, one has certain assumptions about the job that can either be carried out in the way the subjects look, or confounded. And with famous people, yet another set of criteria come in. I could perhaps have thought that it would have been better to avoid that danger, because it gets a bit messy.
But you've eliminated that mess by smashing down all of the particulars into a smooth, universal code. The captions become the only way we have of making differentiations, of creating meaning through the assigning of value - and, possibly, hierarchy. The viewer has no other way of connecting these images with their original subjects, whether or not that's actually of any use.
If it's Kate Moss, and people might or might not gather that from "Kate, model," then there is a difference between people's relationship to that portrait than "Maho, gallery director," if only because they've seen photographs of one and not the other. But my experience of people's reactions to the portraits is not that they feel they could be just anybody. Whether they know the person or not, they tend to express a degree of surprise that they do actually feel these are specific individuals, because there doesn't appear to be enough in the pictures to make that the case. Yet somehow there is, and that's certainly one of my aims.
You've mentioned that this is to some degree a formal exercise, that you started with cars, and sheep, and buildings, so why not try to extend that and apply the method to a face and see where you can take that. As you said, anyone will do. Is there, then, no distillation in the images of your own relationship with the subjects themselves, particularly with someone like your wife, someone with whom you've had a life-defining relationship? As the artist, you had the advantage of the primary experience - you saw the person, you chose the person as a subject, you interacted with her, you were attracted to her or you weren't, you created a history and a memory and an original meaning for yourself. We, however, are only left with the highly truncated symbology of that encounter. The absence of the encounter's particulars, the "mess," as you put it, is what in fact becomes most immediately apparent.
In order to keep things simple, I don't deal with the fact that I do or don't have a relationship to the person that I'm drawing. There's something in what you say that makes me think it's a statement of loss, of the intangibility of everything, and I'm not sure that I feel exactly like that. I think there's an element in the work of being able to touch things, of not being locked inside and being unable to grasp the exterior. It's very much about looking - I don't ask people to touch these things - and I think that through looking and knowledge there is a sense in which one can reach out and try to grasp what at least appears to be reality.
Yet you do suggest a very explicit connection to experience, and even to concrete knowledge, in the titles found in just about every other genre of your oeuvre: You Are in a Car, for instance, or Distant Music Water Traffic. In fact, you go to a remarkable length - quite literally - to imply that factuality in some of the works, like The Great Pyramid of Cheops Contains Enough Stone to Build a Low Wall Around the Whole of France...
...And recently I've done a series of landscapes where the titles are whole paragraphs describing my personal experiences and why I was there, like I had been living in my studio building for a couple of years but when my girlfriend came to live with me we found it too cramped and decided to look for a small house not too far away. Eventually we found a nice three bedroom house with a garden about a mile to the north. Between the house and the studio lies the Regents Canal, it's a fairly run down stretch of canal but I used it for a while as a jogging route in the mornings. I would run along roads heading East till I reached Victoria Park. There is a gate onto the canal and from there I would run back home along the toe path. After a few months my back started to react badly to the hard pavements and my physiotherapist said I should drop the jogging. Instead I installed a cross-country ski machine in the studio and now I exercise there. Its less stressful but more boring. I find it easier to keep going if I close my eyes and picture the route along the canal.
That's a similar thing I think, in seeing what might happen if you mix an extreme autobiographical description with what appears to be quite a distanced, standardized view, because one's always aware that when you're looking at things, they do exist in these two forms. I'm looking down Leonard Street as I talk to you, which is a street in London, with buildings on the side, and you can see it on the Tube map, or you could see it in terms of the electricity cables that run down the length of it. That is Leonard Street - the cables are a good enough description of it if you want them to be - but at the same time it's where I've had a studio for fifteen years, and I have a lot of feelings and emotion about it. Therefore to draw Leonard Street properly, one would need to draw both of those things, the electricity cables and the history of my being here. So going back to that statement about trying to draw things realistically, I find that a photograph is not realistic enough for me.
Because rather than only recording memory, you're almost attempting to embroider it, or synthesize different aspects of it into a super-memory.
When you look at a hammer, you know it not only because of your own personal experience with hammers, but because of its cultural precedents: the drawings, and diagrams, and films, and so on that have created its archetypal image. That becomes even more true of things that you might not have personal knowledge of; one "knows" what a fairy or a guillotine looks like.
So if you don't deny the importance of individual knowledge and experience, you nonetheless render those things as slippery at best. The Great Pyramid of Cheops Contains Enough Stone to Build a Low Wall Around the Whole of France, for instance, seems to be a plainly, even pedantically factual assertion, but in actuality its vagueness renders it totally meaningless - of course, any amount of stone is enough to build an infinitely long wall, depending on just how low you wish to make it. So in one way at least, it can be taken as an absurdist declaration of the value of knowing, which approaches the dimension of tragic comedy when applied to the images we fashion of each other.
I find that open-endedness to be one of the most compelling features of the images, that they're very finished in appearance, but quite tentative in their communication. They're mute exclamations, drawing you in very closely in order to tell you almost nothing at all. One piece in particular that brings this to mind is Virginia, 2000, which seems to me to be one of the first artworks to make significant use of the medium of the computer screen-saver. How did the use of other media, like the Web and video, affect your approach to portraiture?
I've been working on computers for quite a long time, but the Web is actually something that I don't know that much about, and had only come to moderately late. For a long time, I couldn't really get my head around what the Web was, or why I needed it to exist. I think it was James Rosenquist who said that he tended to use only old advertisements as source material for his work, because he needed it to be familiar, and maybe even a little bit old-fashioned. So I think that in terms of the Web, I needed to understand how it functioned in life a little bit, what it was, what one's relationship to it was. It's only recently that I've made a website, and Virginia came out of a request from the BBC, which was doing a project for which they wanted some downloadable art.
What I want is the sense of when the newsreaders run out of news, but the camera stays on them. It's that moment, when they're alive, and it's live footage, but essentially it's a still shot. I think a Sargent portrait often has that fantastic quality, and El Greco: they seem to be alive, right now, even though they're trapped in the past. It's that sense that you're not dealing with a distant set of graphic marks, you're dealing with a presence. And if that person is frowning, or laughing, that can't quite be the case, because you can only laugh for a certain amount of time. It seems weird if you're held in that moment of grimace. So that blank look is something that people can hold for a longer time. Bill Viola plays with this a lot, and Thomas Struth did video portraits of people filmed over the course of a full hour, and of course there was Warhol before that. So if you're attempting to do that with a painting, after a while you get to the point where you actually expect them to stir or at least to blink.
And it's that small, banal thing, that blink, unexpected and out of place and maybe even absurd, that just lands like a punch in your gut when you see it. Virginia feels almost tragic.
It does have a quality of tenderness somehow, but at the same time, an infinite distance.
She seems to be a radical departure from the painted portraits - you'll have to excuse the fact that I keep referring to the artwork as "she," but that's just it, and why I think it's such a devastatingly potent work. She plays off the same blatantly cartoonlike cool of all the others, but there's that punch-in-the-gut dissonance that comes from the one tiny anthropomorphic gesture, the unexpected blinking. I put the screen saver up one day in a heavily trafficked area, and watched people for their reactions when they first noticed her. People would sit in front of her for minutes on end, and I could feel their anxiety, maybe if I even dare say it, their inchoate pain - you want so badly to commune with her, to make the interpersonal connection, and she even seems to call out to you in that way, but you're constantly battling the awareness of the fakery of the thing. It just seems the perfect conflation of portraiture's crisis with our eternal anxiety over technology.
Well, I'd say that sort of pain is both quite sexy and quite desirable - it's the inedibility of the world, and yet the tastiness of it. It's the moment of mental projection, of almost grasping something. Maybe one can only ever just grasp at that pre-tangible level. I think if one were to try to make the closure in the portraits, something would die. Distance would set in, and it would just be Virginia, who's a lovely person, someone I know very well as it happens, but inevitably, she's my friend, not yours.
And you know, now that I've had the portrait experience of her, I don't ever want to actually know her in person.
No. That wouldn't be the point. The point would be to talk about your experience. I'm projecting into the audience that what's important is their experience of themselves and other people. It's communication, in a sense: Does the world look like this to you? Do you experience things, people, places, in the same way?
Some of the elements we've been talking about are things that I purposely put into the mix, like blandness or humor or cuteness or even pathos, in order to get the pieces to work in an unexpected way. If you've ever been to EuroDisney, or one of your American precursors to that, there's that exhibit, It's a Small World After All, which I absolutely love; I think it's fantastic. At the same time, there's a certain element of it that's positively horrifying: it's asking you to enter into this world of chorusing international midgets. As a description of the world, it's funny, cute, awful, beguiling, terrifying, sentimental, and so on. I don't propose my work in the same way, but there's something about the way that it functions which I try to use.
Complicating things by simplifying them to an extreme.
Yes, placing people into a virtual environment that's very powerful, very obviously fake, very attractive, and yet also in some ways repulsive. All of those complex things are going on. I think computers and the Web also link very closely to this; they create environments with very little input, and you're left trying to build the world out of a very limited amount of information.
I'm not interested in creating anything. Everything I make, everything about it, is taken from somewhere else. I don't want to invent. The way the work's printed, the material it's printed on, and its physical reality is a combination of point-of-purchase light-box systems and oil paintings. Their sizes roughly refer to the dimensions of classical museum paintings, but the form in which they're fabricated relates more to advertising techniques. I've also drawn figures using road signs on poles and road paint on the pavement, in the same way that parking symbols are drawn. I try to use systems that you're used to, that dictate the way in which they're read, and most people have an established way of responding to that. So eventually someone ended up parking a Porsche on one of those pieces.
Copyright Gil Blank and Julian Opie.