Exploration of Julian Opie's recognisable style in Graphics International, published in 2003.
Julian Opie finds more inspiration at HMV than in any art gallery - his artworks regularly appear as book jackets and CD covers. Angharad Lewis went to meet this very graphic artist.
He has been called mediochre, bland, master of the stick figure and portraitist of the middle classes. You recognise his work even if you haven't got a clue who he is. As well as exhibiting at the Tate Modern, Ikon in Birmingham, Baltic in Gateshead and other galleries, his work filters into the world as posters, on CD Covers, book jackets and the sides of buildings, even on road signs. In other words you see his art where you would normally see graphic design. But Julian Opie is very definite about not mixing terminology when it comes to mixing art and graphic design. His work sits in a precarious place between the two that elicits derision and suspicion by turns: artists think he is a graphic designer and graphic designers think he is an artist. Whether these name tags are still relevant is debateable but Opie is explicit: "If you want terms, then what is the point of mixing them up and even forgetting your terms and doing whatever you feel like doing?" He argues. "It's not about what is good or bad, most art is terrible, like most music - it's simply shout definitions."
But the points of diversion and congress between art and graphic design can be tricky to negotiate. The graphic designer is paid to bring his or her creativity to someone else's problems. The artists, however, sets out to explore a very personal set of problems. Money changes hands down the line, certainly, but the emotional transaction between the artist and the artwork is at a respectable distance from the cash. That is the crucial difference in the perceived gulf between art and design, Grubby Money. Some designers distance themselves from the subjugation of creativity to balance sheet implied in their trade, because, culturally, graphic design is lower down the food chain than art. Others would argue that art and graphic design are growing closer together because they increasingly inhabit the same worlds. Art is adapting itself to commercial media as graphic design sidles into the gallery.
The idea that artists remain aloof from the sordid world of finance is something that occupies Opie. "It is very constraining for artists that there is this myth of the artist starving in the garret" he says "People have this idea that that is what makes real art. I'm often jealous of graphic designers because they are not tied down by those kind of constraints. The art main constraint is what looks good and whether it sells." As an artist whose work has been widely reproduced as promotional material (most famously for Blur's 2000 Best of album) creating work that looks good clearly has its benefits but is it a primary concern? "It's not enough", Opie says.
But in many ways Opie creates art with the same expectations of his audience as a graphic designer might have, tailored to compete with the wider visual world. Like a graphic designer, his way of working is inspired by the way people process the world. "There's a patterned or layered quality to what people bring to looking at art. You expect a faster experience with graphics," he explains. "when I go into HMV and look at CD covers, there's a better exhibition to be seen than in many galleries. There is so little art around that has that kind of inventiveness and at the same time is very passive and very easy, which is something that appeals to me."
It's quite shocking that an artist of his standing claims to find greater stimulation on the shelves of a high street shop than in an art gallery. It's a reversal of the received idea that you find the vanguard of visual culture in galleries and that this trickles down to the commercial media like graphic design. Clearly the reality is more complicated than this neat model, yet art stays at the top of the cultural tree. Graphic design has to fend for itself outside such carefully controlled spaces as galleries, buffeted by a world of other images and sights. This is where Opie's art is often found and that is the key to unravelling its aesthetics.
Opie's art is about process, logic and efficiency. Like taking a computer apart to see how it works, he unpicks the way people look at things. There is little emotion involved and that is something he cultivates, obliterating evidence of his personal engagement with the work through the use of computers.
Looking at an Opie picture is eminently comfortable compared to a lot of other contemporary art. He is squeamish about what he calls "angst-ridden" art and insists his instinct leads him down a different road. "If you think of Raymond Chandler" he explains, "the way he writes is the way I'd like to make pictures. He doesn't sit there and write about the way he feels, or what his observations on the world are. He writes a detective story. It's a genre everybody knows and within that he can write amazing descriptions. It's really only about language and that is where the beauty is - the insight you get is about language and how language is used. I would hope to make things where the personal-ness isn't in what I describe, it's in the way I go about dealing with the world and depicting it."
Taking the familiar forms of road signs, computer game graphics, and information graphics, Opie usurps the visual language of other mediums and filters his view of the world through them. "I see myself more as a manipulator than an inventor," he explains. " I'm not really that interested in inventing things from scratch. The way I go about things is by mixing and comparing and referencing."
It would be easy to say that Opie distances himself from his work by using a computer, but he also does so by using a visual style that the viewer already has an existing relationship with. His road signs for example: we know how to read them so there is no need to ask questions as to how to interpret them. By using this approach Opie coerces the viewer to engage with the work. What Opie aims for is to tap into an existing visual literacy in his viewer: not to facilitate the better understanding of any particular message but to concentrate on the very methods we use in visual reading.
It's a way of engaging with the viewer that Opie has been working towards throughout his career, and his absorption with the way we look at the world comes from questioning the value systems of representation. It emphasises the fact that an image rendered in oils is a marginal part of our contemporary visual vocabulary. An image in oils is effectively an outmoded visual term, like the word wireless as opposed to the word internet. Opie's art chooses to talk in the most populist language and that is perhaps its greatest affinity with graphic design. Using known frameworks for his art, he taps into people's already developed sense of reading; to what ends isn't clear. But that is beside the point for Opie, which is where you begin to find yourself in a cul-de-sac with his work. Despite the fact that his work explores interesting ideas about how we engage with the visual world, all the Conundrums Opie poses have been ironed out to perfection by the time we get a look-in. It's like sitting down to a cross word and finding someone else has filled out the answer.
When pushed on the cross-over between his work and graphic design, Opie insists that he would not be able to follow through his ideas if he had to give up control of any part of it to client concerns. The design work that he has done is on the periphery of his main artistic practice and the design jobs are skimmed off from this. "maybe a lot of graphic designers feel this way", he suggests " that they are busy in their heads with a progression of ideas that's separate from any particular output" But ultimately the two remain exclusive. So when advertising design makes claims for itself in the art world Opie gets nervous. "It's a dangerous, slippery slope. I find Benetton exhibiting their work in an art gallery close to offensive. The exhibition Absolut Vision by Absolut Vodka I also recoiled at."
It seems that stepping outside the definitions is a perilous journey. Opie is suspicious of it in others but does it himself. Perhaps to preserve the defining terms of art and graphic design is to set the boundaries that integrity tests itself against. Although graphic design is defined by its commerciality, its cultural value needs to be realised, and although the definitions serve a valuable purpose the hierarchy is gradually being challenged. Opie works from the stance that his art is his priority and if someone wants to skim it for a design project, so be it. But the ideas he explores would not be his were it not for the way graphic design has changed the way we see and how the world looks.