Text by John Slyce for the catalogue accompanying Julian Opie's 2014 solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Krakow (MOCAK).
A short while ago, I was asked to write an essay that would serve as an introduction to Julian Opie’s art with some special considerations for a Polish audience. I was initially reluctant to take up this request, given I am somewhat familiar with the level of sophistication demonstrated by Polish audiences as they engage with varied cultural production (I spent some time in the country during the 1980s). Such an effort felt to me a bit condescending, if not indeed potentially patronizing.
That I was offered to do so in a catalogue with a global distribution and which aspires to a life beyond that of the temporal or institutional frame of the exhibition provided a tempting contradiction to explore, though one I still resisted. What changed my mind? I can assure you it is not the money (art writing rarely ever really pays). There was a greater contradiction at stake that tempted me.
Julian Opie is one of Britain’s most widely recognized and best-known artists. Of his generation – Opie was born in London in 1958 – he is surely amongst the most significant and commercially successful contemporary artists presently working in the United Kingdom. And yet, for all of these accomplishments there is very little critical literature in place that properly addresses the central concerns of his art and contemporary practices of making. I have therefore chosen to focus my remarks on what I consider to be the very contemporary characteristics of Julian Opie’s practice and to address these to a global ‘Polish’ audience of the curious, though largely uninitiated. With the inherent limitations of a catalogue essay in mind – this is, after all, a commissioned piece of writing with its own spatial and temporal constraints – perhaps the best I can offer is a modest start to what the industry refers to as a ‘critical reassessment’. As for something that might actually be useful for a really existing Polish audience of Julian Opie’s art: such viewers might consider the linear quality, vibrant colours, economy and succinctness demonstrated in what constituted a Polish School of Posters during the decades between the 1950s and 80s. The manner in which such work eroded a distinction between artist and designer finds an important resonance in Julian Opie’s practice and is a crucial initial step towards an appreciation of his art and its contemporary relevance.
Opie studied art at Goldsmith’s College in London during 1979-1982 under the direction of Michael Craig-Martin, an inestimable influence and spur to art students at the college during the 1980s and 1990s, particularly those which would form a core grouping of young British artists in the early to mid 1990s. Craig-Martin had, like so many of his contemporaries, followed a trajectory away from painting and the making of distinct objects in a studio, to exploring what post-studio practices might be and what kind of art its post-object production might include. Minimalism, post-minimalism and conceptualism – these movements or tendencies vastly expanded the field of practices and propositions for what art might be or, perhaps better, when and where it might reside. Goldsmith’s reflected these changed conditions in the model of making and the educational experiences offered as an art college. Students could work and make in a studio should they want, but this was not mandatory. Rather than make work within the fixed parameters and identities of a painting, sculpture or printmaking programme, students there were, and still are, free to graze across a field of study designated as ‘fine art’. Whatever idea or concept might drive a given work, its final form was not to be governed by traditional object conditions and stable categories. Works come forward as propositions for what a painting or sculpture might be rather than falling back on received identities. Within such a framework, art is less a noun and functions more like a verb.
Julian Opie first came to prominence in the middle years of the 1980s and was initially closely linked with the New British Sculpture group, which included the likes of Richard Deacon, Antony Gormley, Bill Woodrow, Anish Kapoor and Richard Wentworth. This association had perhaps less to do with the work Opie was producing and more to do with the shared stable of artists he was amongst at London’s influential Lisson Gallery. While there was no specific characteristic style to link these artists together, the group indeed worked with ordinary and conventional materials grounded in everyday life. At the time, Opie was making loosely painted metal sculptures that combined humour and wit with a realistic mode of depicting objects and images drawn from the observed world. Towards the close of the 1980s, Opie’s work grew in size and scale and became more pared down, austere and minimal as it explored relations between art and architecture, or our experience of the designed and built world through forms of industrial production and its varied modes of display. These works shared a visual and material resemblance to the early work of Jeff Koons and even Haim Steinbach as they drew equally on the legacy of Minimalism and contemporary forms of commercial display to produce a critique of the commodity and postmodern forms of consumption. Throughout, Opie’s work remained based in observation and in a reduced and simplified mode of realistic depiction. The aim of such an approach is to produce an art this is not – to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard – the reflection of reality, but to make art that foregrounds the reality of a reflection. In many respects, Opie has remained fundamentally concerned with exploring how reality is always already re-presented to us through the authoritative sign, be it a contemporary road sign or a LED announcement in an airport or along a motorway, or alternatively that grounded in an historical image and object in the antique portrait or bust.
An ideal approach to Julian Opie’s working method is to enter through a concept of the drawn. Opie’s engagement with the drawn line is invested perhaps more in the eye than indeed the hand. During acts of close immersive looking, one’s eye traces the edges, folds and forms belonging to objects and images in the perceived world. All drawing is, in a sense, a process of applying language to an image. Opie works through trial and error, moving from observation to what he aptly terms ‘the accident of learning’. Each step made in the process of producing a work comes forward and operates as a kind of drawing in itself and each layer takes the subject closer towards something you can see. Some steps in this extended process are simple to describe, like the earliest moments derived from the framing and recording device of a photograph. These images are then imported onto a computer screen. Further stages are far more complex and instinctive. Opie applies a kind of translation of the photographed figure into a language he has developed based on signs and symbols, shadows and outlines. Opie describes these moves as akin: “a tracing that my mind does naturally, running a line along the perceived edge of things describing the form of something. It’s the most direct and one of the most ancient forms of describing using eye and hand and tool. A single line of concentration and focus so that your hand moves with your eye as it understands an object. Next comes a stage of colouring in and collage, of trial and error as different elements are highlighted or dumped. I am always aiming for the minimum that tells the maximum. One curve in the hair to describe the way it moves and falls, one colour that sums up a dress.”
The drawing now exists as a proposal, a possibility stored and open to any number of forms, material outputs and modes of display he has taken note of in the world. Opie here taps into the efficiency of non-verbal social communication and the manner in which imagery exists in the world as authoritative information, or the type of language and sign that tells us what to do. These command action and demand obedience. The form of fabrication is as much a part of the work as the image and generates a tension between the material that depicts and the thing depicted. Take, for example, Opie’s portrait works in mosaic and the mosaic’s relation to the pixel. Once drawn and titled, these become part of Opie’s language and function like words that find a grammar and syntax in crafted sentences. The drawing is his and he will use any one drawing in a number of ways: as a painting that comes forward in a three-dimensional sculptural form, or as a silhouetted image applied directly to a wall. The same drawing may find its way to becoming a film presented on a very painterly flat screen. In every case the fabrication is strong. The forceful materiality of Opie’s art is often lost in reproduction. The very process of making was something like a trap, or, as Opie says, “a careful setting up of mirrors to capture a flashing moment of accident and beauty and single it out and hold it where it can be seen and studied and perhaps enjoyed.” A successful image, for Opie, should be smooth and without incident. Incident is a distraction and interrupts acts of close looking where the eye leaves the place that we are in and enters into an image. Here we consume the form as well as the content of communication in Opie’s art.
Cultures old and new comingle with the newest technologies and forms of production – either commercial, or industrial and as well those of art and design – in Julian Opie’s art. An Egyptian syntax may find an Etruscan modulation alongside a line inspired by a Hiroshige woodblock print or Japanese anime produced in Studio Ghibli. An engagement with seventeenth and eighteenth century portraiture informs Opie’s augmentation of his signature graphic black line with a more shadowed line of depiction. Artists enjoy greater resources and material to make from in our present moment of culture and economy than in any previous age. All is made visible and available to both use and consume. Opie may start with the sophisticated shadows that make a photograph, or a few frames of film of an individual walking down a busy street, but the world offered is, I would argue in the end, one drawn. Rather than adding layers of mediation, Opie strips as many away as is possible. An image is simplified, even decimated and the incident of distraction is melted away. His art demands a way of looking associated with life and language. In much art, language is supplemental to an image. In Opie’s art, language is within the image and here even a stand of trees will conform to a grammar and obey the artist’s syntax as he turns image into icon.
Opie’s studio is relatively small for the amount and scale of the art he produces. He has some eleven people working with him in the studio; roughly four organising things and seven with specific skills related to his output. This is a small number of assistants by contemporary standards. His mode of conceiving a piece is to see a possibility and then go about finding a way of doing it. A work of art is always in measures a product of imagination, intuition, experimentation and design and Opie’s studio practice follows suit. There is a good amount of what the art industry calls ‘post-production’ where the vinyls that make up a large amount of his paintings are fabricated in Sweden, or the mosaics made in Rome by a master. The LEDs may originate from Barcelona. Working with paint, or even thinking about making work from a platform of painting will mean that one must stake out a position regarding control. Either one attempts to tame and control the wet stuff by technique or aids, or one gives in to it and produces the type of art that revels in such expressive abandon. Perhaps Opie’s engagement with the strong fabrication present in his chosen modes of production is such an expression of control. But that is just unnecessary speculation. A more interesting take would be to consider how Opie’s forms of output and modes of fabrication – his use of technologies ancient and new in the mosaic and LCD – underscores just how technology drives change in art, life and society.
That Julian Opie may refer to what he may make, in one instance, as a painting but think of it as a sculpture should not confuse. It may help to relate to the work before you as not only what a painting or sculpture might be in our present moment, but as a proposition for where art has come to reside. The task is not to resolve the tensions generated by encountering stripping girls and pole dancers alongside a Warholian embrace of the commercially mass-produced portrait, or even the sheer numbness offered by the art of Koons. All that stuff which was once solid has melted into air and with it the boundaries between makers and designers, artists and fabricators, not to mention once time-honoured but no longer stable identities for media. Tadeusz Kantor let us on to all that already some time ago. Julian Opie is a British artist working in a moment shaped by screen and image where artists embark in ways of making and producing art that are present and available in the world, in his case ranging from the technologies of 3D printing to Roman mosaics. The rarity of his art does not reside in the image or object, but stands behind all that has gone into their conception, design and making. The most important thing I can tell you is that you need not know much or any of this in order to fruitfully encounter and enjoy the work. That is, as long as you give in to looking at it in the same uninhibited manner as when you look closely at the world.