People, Portraits and Landscapes, 2005.

Essay exploring the work of Julian Opie by Julie Morere from the book Impersonality and Emotion in Twentieth-Century British Arts published by Universite Paul-Valery Montpellier III

Julian Opie's People and Portraits series ambivalently reconcile the impersonality of the digital media with a strong sense of self, since Opie poses himself as thinker and prolific creator, thus breaking the impersonality pact as he allows emotions to slip in. On the other hand, the impersonality of his stylized drawings may disconcert the viewer who finds no familiar bearings in the drawings which look like empty shells. The artist recommends a highly disengaged attitude towards his works, but he also knows that they cannot be taken in and understood if the personal emotions, memories and ideas of the viewer do not come into play to fill in the blanks of the narratives that are to be 'read' in his drawings. 

Digital art seems to be the most impersonal and vacuous means that one can think of to relate to the external world: Yves Michaud, in L'Art a l'etat gazeux: essai sur le triomphe de l'esthetique, evokes the paradox found in the ethereal, vaporous quality of postmodern works of art, 'des experiences esthetiques ou il ne reste plus qu'un gaz, un ether, une buee artistique,' as opposed to those rare objects that used to be hung in museums and that people contemplated religiously. On the contrary, digital art is the result of a complexly coded combination of numbers and reasoned formulas which seem to have no relevance to aesthetic emotion. In her article entitled 'Bodies and Digital Utopia,' Catherine Bernard evokes a 'dissociation from experienced physical reality,' a 'dematerialization and slow disappearance of the physical dimensions of our beings.' Such a statement seems to apply directly to Opie's work at first, but as I discuss his exploration of the codes and conventions of representation, I will show how in fact, he tries to combine the personal and the impersonal in his people and portraits series.

Juggling with the economical aesthetics of computer creations that come to life through various media such as vinyl, LED, enamel-on-glass sculptures, aluminium, steel, plywood, stickers, screensavers, road signs, CD covers or billboards, Opie departs from traditional visual arts as he sculpts, prints, or installs his works. Opie emerged as an influential figure on the British art scene in the 1980s, and from the start, he ambivalently combined individuality and impersonality in his reinterpretation of a cultural past that he reclaimed or re-appropriated. His accumulated objects and heaps of canvases or his plates of portraits made him a direct inheritor of Pop Art aesthetics. He was also greatly influenced by minimalist and conceptual artists, reflecting on the status of abstract art and its vision of the world as surfaces and signs, as well as on the (lack of) correspondence between signifier and signified. Opie achieves detachment in the same way as Pop artists did through the sense of distance given by new techniques. While Andy Warhol used serigraphy and Lichtenstein Ben Day Dots, Opie chose the digital image in his recent works. This medium conveys an apparent lack of subjectivity and individuality which seems to dissolve the self of the artist and place the work of art to the front of the stage. The clean-edged lines of the drawings confer them an impersonality which seems to imply that the artist does not engage his human personality or emotions in the creative process.

However, Opie ambiguously poses himself as creator, and his work is very much connected with real life persons or situations. He talks about his 'greed' to grasp and draw anything available and explains how he came to realize that the realism of his works was a key factor to artistic creation. By realism, he means something which tallies with his experience of the world, something that is held as information in his head and that he tries to remake into his own language. Ironically then, as he takes photographs of people and draws from them, it is as if he took in fact four steps back from reality: first he perceives/sees these people in a certain way, then he takes a picture of them, thirdly, he executes his drawings, and lastly, he endlessly reprints them or redraws them on various media for the exhibits. Another main dilemma is to decide whether to add lots of details to be as realistic as possible or, on the contrary, none at all, which is the solution he chooses with de-saturated images that could be endlessly reproduced with slight variants.

As he strove to remain as detached as possible from his creations, Opie has elaborated a very unique form of art, which is very recognizable and very personal, nearly hyper-personal, or 'hyper-real' in Jean Baudrillard's terms. Opie reduces bodies and faces to the most essential lines and colour planes, omitting idiosyncratic details. As he seems to strive towards a universal mode of expression, a new form of artistic language, in fact he achieves a balance between the generic (the impersonal) and the specific (the personal or the individual), which first confronts the spectator (or 'reader' in Opie's own terms) with an endless repetition of disconcerting look-alikes that hardly stir any emotion in the viewer. I will first discuss Opie's ambiguously detached artistic treatment of people. Then, in spite of the fact that some critics have interpreted Opie's work as alienating and representative of the estrangement from our nature, caused by the advance of technologies and industrial modernity, I will show how despite the seeming neutrality of the drawings, the 'reader' slowly feels a sense of exhilarating identity with the characters depicted, as well as a sense of freedom about how to look and understand the pictures, reacting personally to the works he sees.


The creative process

Opie soon departed from his Minimalist phase to represent real life landscapes, animals and people, but the stripped down lines of his digital drawings retain some abstract quality. Opie's glitzy and ungraspable surfaces are deprived of the torments of the flesh, at the antipodes, if only to take one example, of neo-expressionist paintings whose brushwork imprints the body on the canvas in a painful and distorted manner, disfiguring, or de-personalizing it. Opie seems to eliminate the tactile dimension as if all that went through it were an obstacle to an immediate inner truth, in a world where sight is almighty. Opie's work seems to be an art connected to thought only, a form of art that would be disembodied since the artist's own body stands out of the creative process, refusing to participate in the physical exhaustion of the creation, a clean art with no paint stain on one's cheeks or hands or clothes. Although a lot of technical efforts are put into his works, Opie rarely participates in their setting up and has people do it for him: '[it] allows me a position further back, more like a puppeteer. [. . .] Physically, my hands don't touch that material that you are standing in front of [. . .] but I have pored over it for many hours. [. . .] poring over is for me the way in which I work' (Julian Opie, video).

As he started drawing modern buildings Opie took a further step in detachment. Because most modern buildings were rectangular, just like a painting in a way, the object on which he drew the building was itself rectangular. Just as for children toys, Opie thought that if he drew the shape of a car, a tree or a human shape on one side, it would become a car, a tree or a man or woman, and that he would only have to increase the size of these drawings to make them on an adult scale. His objects are all-surface and the emphasis on form and colours makes them easily and quickly readable. Just as the pristine signs and logos that flood our visual field daily, the drawings have no perspective but only a two-dimensional quality which helps the artist to keep them at a distance. Besides, the formal properties of the drawings are as important as the vocabulary they use to communicate meaning.

Opie started drawing people using the old Letraset tracing paper over photographs but then he explains: 'I consciously looked around for a way in which I could draw [people] and it started by buying the aluminium symbols for male and female toilets and I looked at them and thought [that thus] I could combine as I often do the impersonal with the personal' (Julian Opie, video), tracing sharp lines which remind us of Michael Craig-Martin's schematic drawings. In the creative process, Opie concentrates on limbs, faces and necks, fragmenting the bodies but also stylizing the shapes and eliminating unnecessary parts: as a result, the bodies of his characters seem maimed or dismembered. The characters' round heads are severed from the torsos and they strangely look like the glory or aura that can be seen over the head of an angel. The absence of neck, feet or hands gives an eerie feeling to the viewer, for de-personalization at first seems to reach an unbearable extreme.

When Opie drops the photograph (with relief, he says), the work of art ceases to be a multilayered copy of reality. According to Mary Horlock in her 2004 monograph, Opie's style is a '"non" style,' for it tries to rationalise the human body, 'as if a special computer programme could abstract and reduce reality to quintessentials and fabricate them in multiple forms.' Moreover, Opie considers his portraits as objects: 'I play with images and then I define them as objects, so the portraits exist [only as] digital files and at that point I don't deem them to be art works yet' (Julian Opie, video). Thus digital technologies are just a means in Opie's hands, a new tool or media allowing him to create new pictures faster and more accurately, to play with shapes and colours.

With smooth faces and all imperfections wiped out (no pimples and no wrinkles), the portraits present two button eyes, two dots for the nose, the mouth a longer upper line and a shorter lower one, the eyebrows two neat brushstrokes. However, Opie retains one or two details-an exotic flower for Muliati in the eponymous portrait Muliati, Shop Assistant (2002), a hair-band for Christine in Christine, Gallery Director (back) (2000), or auburn textured hair for Jo in Jo, Architect (2001). Thus he never completely erases the personalities of his models, no matter how schematized, 'and their particularities become more prominent through the reduction of everything else' (Horlock 81). Differentiations can also be noted in the titles (first names, professions, actions, gestures, postures or specific item mentioned), thus maintaining a sense of individuality within the multiplicity and giving a new resonance to the drawing. The characters' serial forms prompt us to think about society, how we relate to one another and resemble one another, and whether we are all reducible to types.

Opie actually met the people he drew, and he liked the idea of their getting 'enmeshed in the process' (Julian Opie, video), but at the same time, he radically says: 'I want it to be as if each person I draw were a multinational company with a logo.' In the end, he seems to have achieved a sort of balance between the personality of his 'real' models and the impersonality of a generic form. Such an impersonal attitude on the side of the artist enjoins the viewer to do so as well. But as the viewer tries to tame his fear of an appalling void (the void in the pictures as well as the vapidity that our world resounds with despite its being saturated with signs and meaning), he inevitably loses some of his neutrality, as he becomes a sort of co-creator who fills in the blanks of the drawings' minimal narratives. Through the simplicity of repeated gestures in the LED installations or computer animations, and plain faces in the portraits, the 'reader' is inevitably captured in a sort of story that he himself creates, reacting emotionally to the works of art presented. How does Opie's 'fiction' affect the viewer? How do Opie's disengaged drawings invite but also thwart representational and emotional identification?

By thoroughly studying the history of human responses to images, in his book entitled The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, Freedberg detected many factors that question a tidy separation of intellect and emotion and highlight the need 'to acknowledge the role of sensation in knowledge.' Besides, the word 'aesthetics' derives from the Greek word aisthanestai ('to feel') and then acquired a larger meaning related to the notion of taste. In Kantian terms, the judgement of taste is subjective, disinterested and free, a triad which seems to correspond to the attitude that Opie's viewer should adopt: 'Opie often argues that a sense of detachment is necessary, that we must distance ourselves from reality in order to see it clearly' (Horlock 43). As aesthetics explores the compromises and pitfalls of representation, one may wonder what drives an artist to create. Is it the emotion stirred in him by a face? Is it the colour of a person's eyes or hair? This emotional absence stimulates the imagination of the reader who willingly reconstructs emotions, and thus always faces the threat of abandoning his disinterested standpoint and slipping down the emotional slope. Why is the 'reader' so eager to rush in to fill the emotional gap, ascribing melancholy, arrogance or surprise to the characters depicted by Opie?


'Reading' Opie's pictures

Computers interconnect the image and the viewer to merge representation and reality in a new dual way. It seems that 'digital representations not only possess a power to move us borrowed from their analogue predecessors: they also contain a vitality which enables them to engage us in unique and personal interactive experiences. If images make their subjects present to us, digital representations make us present to them.' In fact, Opie's characters all seem to be prisoners of the frame in which they are drawn, as well as prisoners of our gaze.

In This is Kiera walking, the female protagonist walks aimlessly. The rhythm, tempo, and flowing movements of the kinetoscopic mural installed in Braga, Portugal, at the Mario Sequeira Gallery in 2002, call to mind the aesthetics usually found on catwalks. The computer-generated animation of This is Kiera walking could be interpreted in two different ways, first as an alienated walker, with a sense of indirection: she is walking in a non-space, going nowhere. Nevertheless, one could say that she walks freely, sensually and harmoniously: we could watch her endlessly and let our dreamy or mesmerized minds wander, wondering where she might be going. But Kiera remains an ethereal character. Her body is weightless, fleshless, and inconsistent. She leaves no traces where she walks, and has no physical presence such as in the work by Richard Long for example: A Line Made by Walking (1967) shows a trampled line of grass which raises complex ontological questions that may allow us to throw a new light on Opie's work. Are we all possible objects or subjects of a work of art? Is it art to draw a line just by walking? This photo is im-personal, in the sense that the person who created the line is only present through absence. Yet the photo appeals to our emotions as viewers and stimulates our artistic perception. The individual act of walking relates us to the world and impersonality abandons the picture since we imagine ourselves doing this, as if walking on this lawn allowed us to escape alienation and to exist as individuals performing a singular action.

Kiera, Christine and Julian were used for a project for the Selfridges Manchester store (2003). Ironically, Opie is not so detached since he is Julian and he gets involved in his own process of creation, in a mirror game that punctually undermines his impersonal treatment of the world. All three people are depicted walking around the building. The image is fixed but the sense of movement very powerful. Sometimes the three protagonists meet, walk together, and then head off in different directions, just as we do in the real world where we are perpetually moving, meeting and leaving other people. As the viewer identifies with Kiera, Christine or Julian, he becomes the alienated object of the work of art, but also the free-thinking subject that can 'read' the work of art in his own terms.

Opie's art seems to subvert and reverse any conventional perception of reality, as if we lived 'inside an enormous novel'  in which the external world would be complete fiction and the only reality left would be inside our own heads. This idea is the basis of 'Two minutes out of Time' (2000) or 'Anywhere out of the World' (2000), two movies by Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno in which the protagonist Ann Lee questions the conditions required for a story to emerge.  Ann Lee lives in our imagination, and through the look (or non-look) that she sets on the spectator with her empty eyes, she opens the doors of the world of fiction.  Just like Opie's characters, Ann Lee has few facial attributes, but unlike them, she has no history and no life, whilst Opie's characters have at least an inchoate professional life behind which they disappear in the portraits series. Ann Lee 'is a fictional shell with a copyright, waiting to be filled with a story.' She questions the status of reality as she addresses the spectator to ask him or her who is real, giving the viewer an existence, acknowledging his presence, however artificial this acknowledgement may be.

In the same vein, Opie's recent works are reactive. The people in the frozen portraits look at us, blankly at first, through two deadpan dots representing the eyes. On closer look, in some portraits, the blackness of the eyes is speckled with small white circles as in Fiona, Artist (2001), or the iris is coloured as in Madeline, Schoolgirl (2002), and these details make the characters look a little sad or melancholy. In the animated drawings, at first glance, the portraits appear to be static, lifeless images as in Christine (blinking) (1999), but as you keep looking at them, the figures in the portraits may suddenly shake their head, smile or raise their eyebrows, engulfing the spectator's gaze: 'the incongruity of something so fugitive, fragile and human vies with the production of these works, which is stylised, mechanical and impersonal. Moreover, the actual experience of watching such simple gestures in perpetuity is unexpectedly captivating' (Horlock 85).

As Kathy Cleland puts it in her article 'Talk to Me: Getting Personal with Interactive Art,' just because 'a few moving pixels simulate behaviour we associate with life, we are also caught up in the interactive moment, as the portrait we are looking at suddenly looks back and subject object viewing relations are reversed, we become the object, subject to the gaze of the portrait,'  challenging the traditional relationship between the active viewer as subject and the art work as passive object to be gazed at and interrogated. We are used to seeing static human portraits in galleries and our imaginations speculate on the personality behind the image but our interaction with them is essentially one-sided. On the contrary, Opie's installations have created new interactive experiences for audiences, challenging the ontological status of the art object. We may wonder how life-like a simulated human persona needs to be for the audience to treat it and respond to it in the same way they would to a real human. Can these responses be generated by digitally created human personae? 'In a gallery context [. . .] it is obvious that we are dealing with a virtual, rather than a "real" human. In this situation, there is either a willing suspension of disbelief as the audience member "plays the game," treating the human entity as a person or, alternatively, the audience member might try to catch out and wilfully break the illusion' (Cleland 15).

When the viewer faces Opie's nudes, the illusion is hard to break, for Opie's drawings are disturbingly sensuous and reminiscent of strip-shows. "Kiera" or Sara in "Sara gets undressed. 3" or "Sara dancing" (2004), once captured in rigid paintings, are brought to life by computer generation, and the elegance of their movements or motion provokes a discreet erotic emotion in the viewer: 'Pop and realism, eroticism and lack of passion, theatricality and intimacy - all these engage with each other, just like aesthetic seeing and voyeuristic visual pleasure.' Some critics argue that representations of sex in art nowadays have ceased to stir any emotions or desire in the viewer because sex is flaunted at the face of the viewer, bridling his imagination. Even though Opie unequivocally shows women undressing in languorous postures, his nudes remain subtly erotic. And here lies the paradox that is at the core of his works: they are suggestively erotic and provoke a certain emotion in the viewer because of the very impersonality of the drawings and the distance that both the artist and the viewer can take thanks to the intriguingly disengaged stylized graphic language. Similarly, Opie's erotic Graves and the Remember Them series (2000 and 2001) may shock the viewer but also touch him. Opie pictures the world of the dead as a mirror-image of the world of the living, and his treatment of death, a highly emotional subject matter, may seem utterly impersonal, reminding us of how Pop artists used low subject matter with no apparent critical treatment of it. But Opie's graves are not all just any graves and the personal dimension in the title My Grandfather's Grave (1997) cannot be denied.

When they are not recumbent statues, the characters that lie down in Opie's drawings seem to be asleep. Do they dream at all? Do they reflect on the beauty of their creator's works of art? Could they be mirror images of the state the viewer is in when he looks at an artistic creation, half-dreaming and half-awake, a sort of somnambulist sleep-walking out of his own self as he takes in the work of art (just as when one reads a book and is carried on the wings of fiction), a viewer that would reach the confines of impersonality, a disembodied self surrendering to the evocative power of Opie's work, and reaching a sort of non-world in which the emotions that overwhelm him when he starts understanding the work balance the impersonality seen and felt at first?

Opie undresses the world in the same way as he undresses his standing figures. He nearly asks the viewer to do the same and to look at his works with new eyes after a sort of tabula rasa that would clear out the myriad of gaudy images, proliferating signs, and over-brimming information taken in by the eye in the modern world. Opie's seemingly empty characters are not the symbols of a humanity that is spiritually bereft, although they may seem devoid of life at first. Through colours and movement, Opie's crowds are not anonymous and not without a touch of nostalgia, surfacing for instance in Maho's melancholy look in "Maho, Gallery Director. 2".

Opie recurrently states his 'desire to plunge into what seems to be real, realistic' (Julian Opie, video). Ironically, in 'theEYE' video we can see his installations on gallery walls reflecting his other works, in a sort of mise en abyme, as if his work was physically a huge mirror with endless prismatic reflections in it. On the glossy surfaces of the installations, we can also see the reflections of the silhouettes of 'real' people (viewers) passing by, as if they were suddenly engulfed in this world of fiction. Here one may think of Jeanette Winterson's transpersonality evoked by C. Reynier during the second 'Impersonality and Emotion' Conference (2004). Opie's drawings are not only im-personal, but trans-personal, crossing over or transgressing the boundaries of the self to the other, thus destroying all categories (self/other, subject/object, narrator/reader, writer/reader, artist/viewer).

When people look at art, Opie feels that they have a slight desire for 'if not answers, at least a position' which he says he does not have clearly. 'These things are really about looking at things and not about [. . .] translating them into something else' he says (Julian Opie, video). Nevertheless, they do appeal to the viewer's imagination, opening it up, and the aim of this paper is not to try to enclose Opie's work in the impersonality of a polished critical assessment, but rather an attempt to apprehend the unity of his work combining the impersonality and emotions of a thinker whose creations cannot exist without the viewer's gaze.

January 1, 2005