There are not many artists who can say that they run their studio “like a factory,” as does British contemporary artist Julian Opie. Upon graduating from Goldsmiths, Opie moved from place to place, making works in abandoned bus stops, garden sheds, and friends’ basements. As the young artist quickly emerged as an influential figure in the British art scene, the need for a proper studio grew. After house-hunting with his former teacher and friend the artist Michael Craig-Martin, Opie settled in Shoreditch, East London. Although now one of the city’s trendiest cultural hotspots, in the 1980s Shoreditch was no more than a dusty run-down area devoid of businesses except for some furniture workshops. The three floor, mid 19th century building Opie eventually purchased has been his studio now for over 35 years. Most of his works are made solely within his studio, which includes another space mostly used for works that are larger in scale, located a few miles away from the main building. “An artist’s studio is an extension of their brain and hands, reflecting their system of thinking as an artist,” Opie says. With only a few exceptions, his studio has provided a solid foundation for all artworks he has created since 1987.
Up the steep wooden stairs is a space solely reserved for the artist. It is here that Opie, himself an avid collector, creates, rests, and finds inspiration surrounded by a myriad of artworks. Spanning both time and genre, Opie’s collection includes contemporary painting, photography and sculpture, portraits by 17th-century Old Masters, an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, a wooden statue made by the Toraja people of Sulawesi in Indonesia, shells from Cornwall, and 19th-century Japanese yukiyo-e woodblock prints. For Opie, the act of collecting is yet another method of appreciating different artistic forms, as he surrounds himself with works by other artists. Scattered on Opie’s desk are stones of various sizes and shapes – you might have a difficult time figuring out if they are works of art or not. “These have a very contemporary feel to them. I imagine back in time when Homo erectus started to make tools out of stones. I am also greatly inspired by the fact that humans have always communicated and conveyed their feelings visually. Art is an activity exclusive to humans—something only humans are capable of making.” Opie often imagines the distant past, inspired by and feeling connected to the universal human instinct to create.
I asked Opie how the unprecedented Covid-19 era would be remembered by him, both as a person and an artist. Opie, who has continuously reflected on humanity's past as a means of moving forward into the future, did not disappoint: “You use the much-repeated word “unprecedented” but human history has seen repeated waves of epidemics and other life-changing social and political changes. We tend to see our own experiences as unprecedented, but we have to think about how stable the last 50 years has been for most of us. When my mother was a teenager, she witnessed from a local park German planes dropping waves of bombs on London. My grandfather fled anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia, while my paternal grandparents were born on a ship laden with British people leaving for Australia to escape extreme poverty. If there’s one thing that I learned during this pandemic, it’s that my life was extremely impoverished without physical contact with art. Art has always been important—at least it was to me.”
While a few may disagree that Julian Opie is a ground-breaking artist in terms of the subjects he chooses to portray, none will deny the fact that he is one of the public’s most-loved artists of his generation. Opie’s visual vocabulary—concise lines and flat colours that drastically reduce the visual details of a given image into abstraction—is intuitive and realistic enough to instantly make a lasting impression on viewers. Opie depicts contemporary landscapes through his signature lines, as well as working with a wide variety of mediums including painting, LED installation, sculpture, and video. His observations of the world manifest in many different ways: as figures whose facial features are reduced to abstract forms as seen in the album cover for the rock band Blur; as images of people walking; and as depictions of mountains and open fields seen from a car window. There are not many contemporary artworks as easy to understand, refreshing, and straightforward as Opie’s, and this is because they immediately touch on the human instinct and capacity to associate given images with symbols of particular meanings.
Opie’s work is often referred to as “21st-century portraiture” because it allows viewers to perceive a given image in universal yet very personal ways. Whenever Opie set up a camera to take photos of pedestrians on the streets of different countries, he experienced a “river of humanity”, consisting of people who were fascinating and beautiful in their individual ways. When Crowd., a large-scale LED work, was installed on the façade of Seoul Square in 2009, it caught people’s attention not only because its anonymity prompted viewers to better relate to the figures, but also because in a wider context, it aligned with the modern phenomenon where everybody is a protagonist. The sense of individuality and universality apparent in the work reflects Opie’s unique artistic philosophy as much as it represents the subject matter. By appropriating pictograms, which the artist defines as “a language system intelligible to anyone,” Opie creates work that is all the more relatable and comprehensible to viewers. “My painting represents the process in which my brain comprehends the world three-dimensionally, and it is up to me, the artist, to bring to life this observation of my brain and eyes.” Of course, such a mechanism is not something exclusive to artists, which is why it is more valid to label him as a ‘democratic artist of today’ than simply likening him to Andy Warhol.
Opie expands and transforms the most basic elements of life into different forms through his unique artistic vocabulary, which is further augmented and refined by his use of different materials and technologies. He renders the same subject matter—people—in different ways, bringing them to life as: a portrait bust made of mosaic tiles as seen in a medieval sculpture; a portrait made of plastic pieces; an animated portrait of a person blinking their eyes. The different combinations of materials, techniques, subjects, and themes bring forth countless possibilities; hence, there is no limit to Opie’s inventory of styles. “Making art is similar to cooking in that the way the ingredients are combined and processed is just as important as the ingredients themselves.” It is in this respect that Opie’s work stands out among others, as he skilfully transforms a shared language into a compelling narrative, adding a poetic dimension to the work regardless of the employed medium and technique.
“I gather technologies and materials from the world around me in a similar way I gather imagery. Something stands out as useful as an ingredient—something that looks great and magical and answers my needs. Concrete motorway dividers, airport information light box signs, cast iron railings around local neighbourhoods, LED adverts on the streets… Sometimes I simply use these materials as a practical means to complete my work, but at the same time it’s interesting to observe how the materials and techniques work to contrast and balance different elements in the work. Take, for example, an ancient composition like a row of dynamic bodies seen side-on in a Greek temple frieze, and how it is contrasted with the seductive ultra-modern back-lit inkjet on a nylon lightbox you would see in Next or Chanel.”
The artist’s unique artistic language, which highlights the universal property of art by depicting the most universal experience, has led people to coin the term ‘Opie-ism’. Opie’s upcoming solo exhibition, running from October 7 2021 at Kukje Gallery, offers a glimpse what this term implies. To the artist, the term encapsulates, “a movement towards creating a shared language accessible and intelligible to all, rather than something unique to the artist.” The upcoming exhibition stands out from the previous ones as it will not only depict people, but also animals and buildings. For Opie, an exhibition is not so much a movie or a book, as it is an album that consists of an array of songs that come together to provide the best conceivable experience.
“I have referenced animals and buildings before. But as I ask questions about the world and try to find their answers, something suddenly shouts out to me. Perhaps they have been whispering to me over the years. So I respond to them by playing with the shapes, images, colours, and scales of these elements, observing how these work with the materials and techniques I have gathered and adopted over the years. For this exhibition I chose to go back to the beginning and depict animals—and these were animals I could easily find around me, nothing exotic. However, their colours are not natural; they are taken from road signs, since animals are known to us as much through language and symbols as they are through actual first-hand experience. So these works are as much images of signs, adverts, and logos as they are of animals. At one point, I felt that the animals were saying that they wanted to be depicted in their unnatural opposites in terms of colours.”
Having exhibited across the world, Opie often introduces in his exhibitions works drawn from local scenes; his well-known Sinsa-dong and Sadang-dong figures are two main examples. For this particular exhibition, Opie will present architectural installations, including steel sculptures inspired by buildings in Incheon, Korea, as well as those found around his studio in London. Undoubtedly, the pandemic has changed the way Opie works; unable to physically explore his local area, Opie had no choice but to virtually travel through the streets of Korea via Google Maps. Interestingly enough, the artist came to notice that such a method enabled him to gather information more easily. Retracing memories from his last visit to Korea helped as well. “I remembered how impressed I had been, like so many visitors to Korea, by the row upon row of nearly identical, high white apartment buildings spreading out to the suburbs, each with its number written in large numerals on a side wall…. I have been lucky enough to exhibit a few times in Seoul as well as in the surrounding conurbation of Suwon and Incheon and decided to concentrate on this amazing historic area. The buildings are sufficiently detailed with clear lines, recognisable in a way that allows me to simplify them to an almost abstract network of lines.” Opie also added that he owes these styles to artists that he respects—Sol LeWitt and Josef Albers.
The exhibition also hints on Opie’s daring artistic endeavour, as he conceived the show by “imagining the audience entering the space and being drawn to explore as they might a historical town or a computer adventure game.” Feeling “like a bee in a hive” as a resident of a densely populated city, it was natural for Opie to depict buildings. In conceiving each exhibition, Opie always takes the given space as the starting point, figuring out what it will allow him to do. “I ask myself, ‘how can I best curate the show to create the most powerful and successful experience possible for the visitors?’ I wish to keep each one interested, guessing, and surprised, making connections to the surrounding works.” This time, Opie has gone so far as to curate the show utilizing a 3D rendering of the exhibition space, meticulously placing each work while walking through the gallery wearing VR goggles. The artist has always been intrigued by the ‘movement’ of both his works and the viewers. It is this movement, according to the artist, that allows people to see, explore, and understand the world as much as the works do. Yet again, the artist is in the middle of another movement; as he put it, the exhibition “felt like the beginning of something new.”
Nonetheless, Opie’s biggest goal as an artist is to break free from rules and habits. “I’m not smart enough to rely on such rules, so I let the work lead me where its own logic dictates. In such a process of trials and errors I probably waste a lot of time, but I think it allows for the all-important possibility of surpassing my own limitations.” Whatever it might be that he is trying to depict, Opie has the means and abilities to develop his initial observations into art. If he continues to be a successful artist who “makes works that surpass [his] own expectations, that [he is] proud of, that [he] likes to look at and wants to show other people,” perhaps in the distant future he may be remembered as “an artist who avoided assumptions about the world, was brutally honest about [himself] and the world around [him], avoided boring [himself] and always chose the path that looked most fun,” all the while not failing to highlight the universal properties of art. Encapsulated in this statement is the creative ambition of Julian Opie, an artist who discovers new possibilities every day.