Julian Opie discusses new work made for his first solo presentation at Lisson Gallery, Shanghai.
Can you tell us about this new body of work? We have seen your work in China before but are interested to hear about these new works for Lisson Gallery, all created in 2020. What is different or new about this presentation?
I wanted to explore some new ways of putting images together and be less bound by any sense of needing to actually describe what was immediately in front of me. I gather visual information, but it can be hard to differentiate between what is really creating the experience of seeing and what happens to be in front of you. I wanted to loosen the focus on the immediate facts and create a picture, an experience, out of a wider range of observations and experiences.
Walking to work I cross a busy intersection of three sets of traffic lights creating a set of traffic islands that need to be slowly navigated. I like these islands with their metal lamp palm trees and rushing tides of traffic isolating them. Once on an island there is a temptation to make camp and observe. I set up my camera on one of the furthest flung islands looking back at the main flow of crossing pedestrians. Being close to the studio it was possible to make repeat trips to the island and gather images at different times of day in different weather conditions, and eventually in different seasons. In the past I had been setting up photo sessions in other countries and getting a set number of images to work with. Thousands of images but a finite supply. Now I could simply dip into this flow at any time and this gave me the freedom I was wanting. I drew with an even thicker, less inflected line than usual - as if each person only had a limited number of corners and bends with which to be described beyond the limited format of a stick man. Instead of slavishly transferring the colours of each person’s outfit, I found one colour that could stand in for the fleeting sense of the passer-by. I ruthlessly eliminated detail and edited out anything not needed to sum up the passing individual glimpsed in the crowd.
I have used these drawings for a number of projects I wanted to test out. For me, making work is like experimenting. Like a journey decided on only by a compass direction or cooking with what you find in the fridge. I tentatively gather materials and related observations and start to test in my head and on paper, on the computer screen and in 3D computer models - even full-scale wooden models and paper inkjet prints on the wall. I try to avoid preconceptions and rules as I follow fleeting enthusiasms and test multiple solutions. The glow of a public information light box in an airport, the overwhelming scale of a building-wrap street advert, the ability to see your surroundings as an overall noise scape, the way colours are used as code for electric cables and public safety signs. I’m more interested in how I read the world than what I am reading. How your eye travels across a painting and how you read the surface, the content, the contrasts and references.
Has the pandemic influenced your practice as an artist? As someone who regularly observes and documents people in urban life, have the distanced interpersonal relationships and empty streets had any impact on your work?
I’m wary of talking about the news in what I draw. James Rosenquist said he always used slightly outdated images so that they had had time to avoid being novel and had entered into a world of common language. Much has changed for sure and we are seeing new scenes on the streets that echo in different ways. I have drawn lines of people and crowded screens, which now carry a new connotation. Everything we see is awash with its history, but this week’s news tends to briefly dominate and then recede. Making art feels more like steering a large ship, it’s better to keep a fairly steady course and not veer this way and that.
You have experimented with many media, creating paintings, light-boxes, sculptures and LED animations, and have noted how materials create mood and suggest meaning. What do you find unique about each of these mediums? Are there any other mediums or technologies you would like to try in the future?
I play with the look of things and the reading and feel of things. These elements are built from meaning, use, reference and tactile quality, distance and colour, scale and value. That makes making art sound near impossible, but each work is a slight adjustment from the last. New observations feed into present projects. The ship slides slightly to port or starboard towards unknown destinations. Sometimes I feel making art is like staggering around a dark room peering at dark shapes and picking up random objects that might be sharp or useless but occasionally a piece fits, a door opens, and you stumble into another dark room with possibilities and pitfalls.
Your style is highly recognisable, with your works mainly rendered in a 2D style – can you share the reasons for your commitment on two-dimensional creation? How did you establish this unique artistic style in the first place?
Really? I always felt I was a sculptor first and foremost. Nothing exists as an artwork for me until it’s out in the world standing or leaning or hanging. Every flat picture has a depth and a surface and material, most are made from aluminium or plastic. Perhaps you refer the flat image that reads as a symbol or sign or shadow or hieroglyph. I do play with drawings, images. That had always been the starting point, or perhaps the starting point is perceiving an image and then working to draw it from the world through my process and build it back into the world as language. We see a flat projection inverted on the retina, experience, movement and bifocal vision creates depth. Within that process of reading and understanding is a very personal landscape that can be described and explored and shared. An image is a trick, a kind of magic though a well-known one. I collect Stone Age hand tools. Pear shaped flints made in their thousands by our predecessors half a million years ago. Perhaps the first drawings, shapes imagined into the stones lying around. A drawing is distilled from the world and then carved back into it.
You have been compared to many different artists and movements in the history of art, from working with Michael Craig-Martin initially, to comparisons to Pop Art, ancient Greek friezes, classical Dutch painters, and even post-Impressionism. Can you tell us about these and your inspirations as an artist?
Post Impressionism?! I like that idea. There are many ways in which other people’s art effects what one makes. Influence, reactions against, reference, learning. I grew up in Oxford with its beautiful medieval architecture and museums of art and nature. I spent teenage years wandering the anthropological museum (Pitt Rivers) and historical art museum (The Ashmolean) and Nick Serota (later director of Tate) was director of the Museum of Modern Art. My father taught at New College Oxford with its medieval walls and towers, and dining halls hung with old master portraits. My mother came from an Arts and Crafts background and sketched watercolour landscapes on family holidays. At school I studied the early Renaissance and at home I read Hergé’s Tin Tin. At art school I discovered Warhol and Lichtenstein and Rosenquist. Judd and Andre and LeWitt. Close and Katz and Ruscha. Then the list explodes and begins to include contemporaries. In recent years I have worked my back again through art history by collecting art. Through English and French 17th and 18th centuryportraiture and Japanese Ukiyo, Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Stone Age South East Asian tribal. My own interests and discoveries in my own work lead me to recognise connections and see possibilities in other art. By regularly looking at the works I collect and seek out, I find solutions to my own experiments, alongside finding techniques and ideas in the physical world around me such as in signage and shipbuilding architecture and beadwork.
In your work you draw on the ubiquitous imagery of urban scenes with passers-by, internationally. They seem to be positioned deep within their own world and unaffected by the commotion around them. What is it about certain figures in the street that you are drawn to capture, and do you see them as detached?
Drawing someone from side on is fundamentally different to drawing someone front on. Both have their uses and possibilities and I have done both as well as many other solutions - swimming and dancing and turning, heads only front on and profile, three quarter length posing and casual. The walking images came out of the stills it was necessary to draw to make animated films of walking people. Each film provided some thirty drawings that could be used and combined to create a range of single and group works. I came across this by chance, but it has proved a rich resource. I see that Egyptian and Greek and Assyrian friezes also use this striding, side on figure as a powerful dynamic motif. The side on walker is oblivious of the viewer and this gives a very human power and animal elegance and dynamic. The striding figure has slowed me to combine figures in a natural and endlessly random way, and of course the supply of different people is virtually endless.
Your work is often either portraiture, with no landscape in the background, or landscapes, with no people in them. Can you tell us how this came about and why you were drawn to this method of representation?
I’m afraid by my age I have tried pretty much every combination, but I tend to follow a rule that goes something like - if you don’t need it dump it - it’s hard enough anyway making decisions and choices so sticking to essentials is a useful limitation. The way the viewer’s eye and attention is drawn around a work, the way the brain comprehends materials and images - even space and sound - is complex and I move forward through trial and error. I try out all sensible possibles and combinations, often driving my fabricators and assistants mad with tests and adjustments and changes of decision. Should something be small or big? Gloss or matte? Singular or grouped? And on and on.
When lecturing I sometimes explain that a landscape as an image is like a gap, a hole in space that the mind’s eye enters. A portrait of a person or animal or even a building is the opposite, it thrusts out into space to meet you.
Combining elements in an artwork is tempting but seldom really works. The result often feels forced, and it’s a relief to divide them back up again and just deal with the individual elements. Exhibitions allow me to combine elements, space and object and sometimes sound, in a more natural way, allowing the visitor to wander through and between works in an orchestrated way.
The colors in your paintings are always deeply impressive. For example, in your landscape paintings where subtle changes of colors are superimposed on top of one other. How do you decide which color to use? Is it true that you are color-blind and does this impact your Do they exist in a more spectral and mathematical way in your mind?
I am “clinically” colour blind and it can be frustrating when I have to go and find help from a “normal” person to tell if a skin colour is green or a sky purple. However, I see what I see and can’t compare to anything else. I think my pallette may be more limited than yours and maybe that helps me divide the world up into coloured zones. Perhaps colours stand out more for me or perhaps I just spend more time thinking about them than most sane people. Computers help a lot, though I feel my use of colour pre-computer was similar. I can eyedrop any element in a photo and see its CYMK make up. In recent works I have been pushing the way that colour works. Learning from electricity and safety coding and following almost mathematical systems I have pushed colour away from a merely descriptive role to a more active, defining drawing role. The colour becomes the drawing rather than an infill.
The fashion choices, gestures and ornamental additions all add to your portraits. Do you see these as a form of armour? What does each represent?
I like to look at armour and find it very evocative and provocative. It is highly defensive of course but also aggressive. It draws the human body in a very powerful way that seems somehow very basic, very human. Perhaps clothes have a similar role of following the human form but also defining it and modifying it. A body becomes a described shape drawn by the clothes. I had kind of assumed that the less clothes the better, leaving more limbs visible to draw, and I chose hot days and hot countries to gather the pedestrians I wanted to draw. Recently however I undertook a year-round project of filming people in one spot and found the winter sessions especially successful. I’m now setting up a photo session in northern Norway to see how far this might go. In these cases, all you see really are clothes in motion with hats defining heads. Instead of seeming less human, the images seem to me to be more animated and the clothes more suggestive of presence than a fully drawn body.
We can see your work in four different locations in Shanghai simultaneously this Autumn: Lisson Gallery, Jing’an Sculpture Park, Pudong Bund and West Bund. Can you share your experience of bringing these presentations to China, and some insight into the thought process behind the public art commissions?
It’s of course very exciting to be exhibiting in China and to have such a density of works going up in Shanghai. I have spent a lot of time working this side of the globe, but I can’t pretend to know China at all outside of Shanghai. My impressions so far have been of a very dynamic and intriguing place and I’d very much like to know and see it more. I’m always happy to exhibit my work anywhere and to anybody. I love to show in galleries and museums where the attention and architecture is focused on the work, but these are just some of the options for seeing art and are recent inventions. In the past, art was seen in castles and churches, palaces and caves and temples and long houses. These days city streets and sculpture parks and shopping malls, hospitals and prisons have been options. Most works I make without a very specific home in mind, but I use exhibitions and projects as environments in which to test works out, see them in the real world. I can project my works into possible environments in my head, but I also use models on the computer and in real space to help this process. People usually ask me simply for some ideas for a particular site and I try to think of what would work best there in terms of my current interests and projects. Of course, the backdrop and angles of view are important, the surroundings and mood of the place. Putting a work on a city street means it needs to be seen and understood fast - often from multiple angles. Placing a work in a park or lobby allows for a slower experience. When making outdoor works the choice of materials becomes quite limited and specific but the resonance with the surroundings makes it worth the compromise. Public art is always an imposition on people, like a radio playing loud on a beach. I feel it’s important to win people over with a sense of fast reading and enjoyable engagement. Drawing people who are clearly also passers-by makes a neat circle of people looking at people, pedestrians passing drawn pedestrians.
I try to avoid the dead experience of wondering what something is supposed to be or why is it there or is it art? Everyone lifts their camera when they see a rainbow, or a huge passing ship or famous monument and I try to use these kinds of qualities to create an enjoyable and meaningful experience but also not spoil the environment for people who just don’t care. I spend a lot of time looking at monuments around London which are mostly bronze and 19th Century. They seem to merge into the architecture and become a part of the city, creating a bridge between people and buildings. Statues in the ancient world often had this quality of seeming to be part of the architecture that comes alive and exists in a half way place between humans and stone buildings - animating a city and humanising it.