Texts from the catalogue produced to accompany Opie's major 2018 solo exhibition at National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.
Making art is a fairly odd decision but people have been doing it since forever. If doodling while on the phone I’m inclined to draw a 3D cube and then another; it’s the fastest way to create imaginary space, another world. I live in London and move through a labyrinth of extruded rectangles like an ant on a computer board. I understand space and see movement by the changing views on these shapes. By painting squares on the sides of my extruded rectangles I create modern buildings. These basic building blocks of modern towns are universal and are engraved on our retinas and minds, recognisable without thought or interpretation. By colouring the windows and suggesting glassy reflections, the surfaces of the blocks become pictorial and seem to shimmer a bit. My aim is to make a series of flat drawings into a real space that is also an illusion.
The city is full of images, posters, signs and billboards, they use a variety of languages and materials to inform, persuade and command. The act of looking is a kind of navigational system. By plotting the angle and distance of objects around you it’s possible to locate yourself in space. I like to think of bats, they don’t use their eyes in the dark caves but listen to the echoes of the clicks they make. They do not see lines of technical data, their brains must interpret the bounced sound and make pictures in their heads to enable them to catch insects and avoid walls. The bats must see their surroundings in the same sort of way that we do, probably with colour of some kind, perhaps denoting surface texture. Some moths even have anti-bat camouflage by using certain textures on their wings.
By thinking about this process I understand better that what we assume we see is actually a mental construct built of information from light bouncing off objects and onto our retinas. The upside down image is then interpreted and - along with sound, smell and even the touch of wind or heat - we can build a three dimensional environment in our brains and then navigate, explore and clarify that space. Making art for me is about engaging with, understanding and playing with this process. I am only aware of it occasionally but when I am, I notice things I can use; conversely when I see interesting things they make me aware of this process. I build artworks that evoke and try to intensify the act of looking, of navigation, of feeling one’s presence in space, in life.
Portraiture is the most common and the most utilitarian of art forms. A portrait has a job to do and acts as a kind of mirror to the viewer, a head looks at a head. This allows me to try different experiments with combinations of subjects, materials and processes. My first attempts at drawing, long before home printers and digital photos, involved closing one eye and tracing my reflection on the surface of a mirror with a felt-tip pen. The result was clearly a drawing but it was also a tracing. It felt more lifelike and spookily real than a normal kind of drawing, a bit like a shadow.
Shadows or reflections might have been the first images humans ever saw. It’s a short step to the act of tracing that shadow in the sand and a few more steps to using a burnt stick on a cave wall to trace your memories of the day’s hunting. There is an element of mechanical process in all drawing, of flattening out what you see and developing a language to translate the endless complexity of reflected light into an adaptable set of signs. By placing a photograph of a friend over a shop-bought lavatory sign I was able to adjust the universal symbol for man or woman into a symbol for a particular individual. I reused this process and “zoomed in” on a face.
I aimed to make a kind of rubber stamp for every face, a universal logo for each person I saw. I may have drawn hundreds of faces but I still look at people on the subway and want to draw each face using the systems I have developed.
Having found a way to draw people I began to receive requests to make commissioned portraits. Something about the process seemed natural and obvious - I needed models and people wanted their portraits made. My work refers to the history of portraiture and a commissioned portrait is so much part of that. The relationship between the artist and sitter is embedded in a portrait; you sense it and react to it. A portrait of a friend or family member puts the audience in one position and a commissioned portrait makes you feel a different way. Accepting commissions has meant that I meet people whom I might otherwise never encounter. They often have spectacular clothes to choose from and I have sometimes used their homes in the pictures.
If we had no language I wonder how we would think things through or describe things even to ourselves. I have a language of drawing that develops, adapts and circles back over the years. Like verbal languages it is based on the past and other people and practice and communication but the syntax is somewhat more invented and personal I suppose. With that language I am able to approach certain subjects and use them, draw them.
In the early 1990’s I set off around Europe in a fast Citroen CX to photograph landscapes, but I began to have difficulty deciding when to stop and take the photos. I worried that I might be missing the best views and even if I found them it might be the wrong weather or time of day. I decided therefore not to stop at all but to continue driving and simply take photos from the driver’s seat. It became a passive recording of what came at me and went past me as I circled western Europe rather than any chosen composition. The results provided a potentially endless series of what I called “Roadscapes” where the flat countryside creates a moving but somehow constant set of parallel or converging stripes. Every view was connected and the same as every other view, though arranged in different ways.
Early computer games, screensavers, satellite navigation systems and computer flight simulators gave me a language with which to both draw and animate these landscapes. In recent years I have returned to the project but with a less rigid vocabulary. By finding different geographies and different modes of travel, and by allowing these differences to define the drawing and colour and angles of view, I have a wider set of possibilities. I have also looked for other materials and techniques. In the 90s I hand painted on flat wooden boards framed in aluminium and set behind glass to simulate a view through the windscreen. I also made continuous computer animations for small fat CRT monitors and I painted whole walls to create a sense of immersion and virtual walkthrough. I now use slim, backlit LCD screens and inkjet prints on plastics and glass.
I am addicted to the work of a Japanese artist of the early 19th century called Utagawa Hiroshige. He influenced Van Gogh, Monet and Hergé (creator of Tintin) and many others. These in turn showed me how to draw and, in particular, I have borrowed the verticality of the landscapes (Europeans tended to use a horizontal format for landscapes) and the use of a dramatic foreground element to emphasise the depth of the view beyond. There is always suggested movement within his images, someone punting down the river, birds crossing the sky, rain falling, flags flapping, people crossing bridges or fireworks popping. Hiroshige achieved all of this with woodblock prints and vegetable dyes on a strictly government regulated scale. I can make elements actually move using computer animation.
Being under two meters tall humans are in a poor position to understand their surroundings. The world that is so clear and understandable from an airplane is simply a series of narrow coloured stripes from the ground. In Cornwall, in the south east of England, the stripes are dark rich greens and aqua greys. As my holidays pass the colours change and as we walk along the cliffs the stripes twist and slide. I have been drawing these stripes all my life in various materials and scales and levels of detail. My aim is always realism but not in the sense of photographic detail, more the realism of a glance or a memory or the feeling of being immersed all day in a view. By putting that view back out into the world on a computer screen or gallery wall, I can extend, record and play with the pictures I see. By looking at that picture there is a doubling up of the process, a view of a view.
SWARM - FLOCK - HERD
It’s easy to forget that we are animals. To understand our behaviour at all, I find it helpful to remember this and to be aware of other animals that surround us or used to surround us. Now, we only have birds, insects, fish and domesticated animals around. To see a wild animal is a special occasion and I don’t draw them, they are too interesting in themselves, too exotic. Different places have different “normal” animals of course but there are some that seem pretty universal, that you would not be surprised to see on a road sign.
Because we don’t know them as individuals it’s easier for me to make artworks of groups of animals, as in nature they seem to be the same animal but repeated, in a different position. In early times most art depicted animals and we must have had a much closer relationship to them. The Egyptians merged animals and humans in their art bringing that relationship very close and making you very aware of the power and dignity of animals.
On my walk to work I pass through a small park and there are always a bunch of rowdy, jet black crows hanging around. I know they see me but they are aloof and seldom fly off. I spent a morning filming them and identified a number of specific movements. The movement seems to be as crow-like as the drawing itself.
Sheep have a certain modesty in the animal world; they are sadly functional and for us they are interchangeable. I use them as compositional elements and have built films that run on algorithmic, random programs creating an ever-changing painting of wandering, grazing sheep on a plain green background. Filmed on sloping fields the sheep can be above and below each other on the same surface. With their full coat they are barely more than a blob and are easy to draw. I find myself contrasting this somewhat wide-eyed, natural quality with elements of our urban, post-industrial, somewhat ruined world. My sheep are drawn in the language of motorway signage produced on machine made surfaces. They remind you of quiet walks and wind swept valleys while the LEDs, the shiny acrylic and the powder-coated, laser-cut aluminium are part of the struggle through the airport, underground or high street.
Waiting at the school gates for pick up time I was looking at passers-by and realised that everyone looked better than my models. They were more interesting, more real, they talked on phones, smoked cigarettes, they carried bags and had a sense of purpose and were utterly unaware of me. Suddenly the London crowd became an invaluable resource, a gold mine.
Walking, striding, is a dynamic and natural pose for humans used throughout art history especially in ancient times. It gives the figure a sense of purpose and, instead of seeming to pose for the viewer, they walk on by without a glance, coolly ignoring you and thus allowing you to stare. As part of the plans for this exhibition I asked a local photographer to set up his camera in various places around Melbourne and record the passers-by. He sent hundreds of photographs and I set about drawing the best ones without a very clear idea as to how they might be used.
Some 60 drawings later I have a palette of characters and have been using them in a range of paintings and statues. Each one throws up surprises and opportunities that I could not invent - a tattoo or a tasseled dress, a goatee or the logo on a T-shirt. I have one group from the middle of the city and one from near the beach. By making groups of six walkers I get a street crowd and a list and a kind of fashion parade.
The photographed moment was random and fleeting but in the process of making the works - by carving the image permanently - it slows down and solidifies. Random decisions such as wearing a striped top or swinging a bag or water bottle become solid decisions and material that you could run your finger over.
There is a beauty and energy in a striding figure. Each person wrapped in their own purpose, dressed in their own way, combining with strangers to create a constantly changing, random dance. I have drawn people walking in towns in various other countries. Busy city workers returning from a lunch break, fashionable shoppers with labeled carrier bags, hot people in flip-flops and bundled up, cold northerners.
The directional nature of a walking figure gives a narrative and a dynamic. Every artwork has a narrative and a successful one circles endlessly back on itself. By using actual movement I can draw a viewer in and invite a collaboration of looking for its own sake, like a juggler.