Julian Opie: Great rooms, blank faces

by Ashley Rawlings

Julian Opie’s work is about signals. In his portraits, a pair of dots signals the eyes, a single line signals the mouth — his imagery is a distillation of reality that presents you only with the essential elements needed for your brain to fill in the rest.

In popular consciousness, he is best known for the album cover for U.K. Brit Pop band Blur’s 2001 “Best of Blur” (2000). This came long after his rise to success in the art world, where, following graduation from Goldsmiths School of Art in 1982, he became one of the key figures in the New British Sculpture movement. Despite showing regularly in Europe and the United States, bar a couple of small solo shows at his Tokyo gallery SCAI The Bathhouse in 2000 and 2005, a current exhibition at Art Tower Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture is his first major solo exhibition in Asia, and showcases 90 recent works.

From the first room of the show, there is a sense that the exhibition has been constructed like a narrative, with chapters ahead that build up on what you already know. Opie begins by locating you in familiar territory, introducing you to his characters, from the demure profile of “Jack, printer. Profile right” (2007), dressed in a gray pinstripe suit against a brown background, to Opie’s daughter in “Padmini, schoolgirl 2” (2007), clad in vivid red against a blue background. From here, the clear line of sight that runs through a straight line of galleries draws your eye to “Shahnoza dancing in bra and pants” (2007) — installed several rooms ahead — a life-size panel of yellow LEDs depicting a go-go dancer swaying seductively from side to side, beckoning you through the show.

Opie’s portraiture is inspired in equal measure by fine art and more everyday imagery. These oval-framed closeups on expressionless faces recall the conventions of 18th-century portraiture, and yet, made of plastic and mounted on light boxes, the materials are rooted in the contemporary world and are more akin to the graphic design seen in advertising billboards or road signs.

“I’m aware of the hierarchies of imagery and how they can be useful tools for a contemporary artist to play games with,” Opie said last Saturday before the opening of the show. “But I think that our vision of the world is built up out of everything: Whether it’s from children’s books, tourist visits, museum trips or television, there are infinite sources of visual information that all build the way we look at the world. It’s not our eyes that impose these hierarchies, it’s something we learn from each other.”

In Mito, Opie presents some of his experiments with half-length portraits of people depicted from the waist up. “Ruth with cigarette 2” (2005), portrays a collector who commissioned Opie to draw her. She is looking directly at the viewer, but her expression is impassive; if anything there is a hint of bemusement in her mouth. With her body turned away, and her arm up, cigarette in hand, she is not engaged with the viewer but instead conveys an aura of casual aloofness.

This painting spawned its neighbor, “Ruth smoking 5” (2006), a video work depicting the same model, this time semi-undressed, her breasts partially exposed. Despite the more open and inviting body language, her aura of aloofness remains. Her eyes blink, the second hand ticks on her watch, and a thin white wisp of smoke rises from her cigarette. Although Opie’s layering of the thin blouse hanging over her breasts gives the image a certain amount of depth, her chest doesn’t move. Faced with the deathly stillness of her body, her inscrutable gaze and the silent discord of the subtly differing rhythms of the movement in her eyes, her watch and her cigarette, one is filled with a lingering sense of unease.

Opie cultivates a different, almost comical rhythm in “Hannah, Lottie and Esther blinking [vertical]” (2006), the composition of which was inspired by Kitagawa Utamaro’s “Three Beauties of the Present Day” (c. 1793). The viewer’s eye finds its own rhythm as it flits from one face to another, but is countered by the blinking of the three sisters.

Meanwhile, the pace differs still with the unceasing movement of “People walkin” (2007), which depicts a crowd of male and female figures walking, both from left to right and from right to left. Seen in profile against a white background, their bodies have been drastically reduced to black outlines; highly stylized, their heads are nothing more than circles hovering above their shoulders with a void in place of the neck.

The video runs on computer-driven algorithms that ensure that the same two figures do not appear on screen at the same time, and that they walk past each other in different cycles. The work recalls the relentless movement of crowds, and stripped of any personal features, it is impossible not to attribute a certain mindlessness to these people. Their thin profiles and smooth gait recalls models on catwalks, and yet walking back and forth in random order, the scene is more reminiscent of a main street downtown — Opie produced a very similar work for the digital facade of Omotesando Hills in 2006. Feeding such imagery into a public commercial context would seem to suggest Opie is making a comment on consumerism or social homogeneity, but he denies this.

“It’s about exploring the mood and movement generated by crowds of people, and how far one can play with it, rather than having a preconceived idea about what crowds of people mean and making a statement to reinforce that,” he says. “The process of making work is similar to mining for gold: I allow the structure of the project I’m engaged with and the limitations of the tools available to me to dictate the course I take.”

In the spirit of investigating how the world works, Opie goes on to say that he welcomes the challenges presented by public commissions such as these, as they have the potential to push his work in new, unexpected directions. In 2006, the Art Gallery of Ontario invited him to make wall paintings for the Henry Moore Pavilion. Inspired to respond to the reclining nudes, but not wanting to incorporate conventional props for the human body — be it a bed, a chair or the floor — he asked Shahnoza, a student working part time as a nightclub pole dancer, to pose for him. Her lithe, sensual figure recurs throughout the exhibition at Art Tower Mito.

Looking for other ways of liberating the human body from gravity brought Opie to the idea of the human body suspended in water. For the “Christine swimming” series (2007), he sat in a swimming pool with a rock on his lap, using an underwater camera to photograph his wife swimming back and forth naked.

“It had to be clear that she was swimming. In the images of her just floating, it was unclear what was going on, so the arms are outstretched in a way that communicates the idea of someone swimming, and the lines are those of the female form,” Opie explains. “I want my works to contain answers to the questions they pose. Warhol said that if you make a decision in an artwork then something is wrong. Every decision should be made by the work’s initial premise.”

The seductive LED panel visible from the exhibition entrance, “Shahnoza dancing in bra and pants,” is next to these swimming works. Opie came up with the idea for it when he noticed that LED taxi meters in South Korea display a small galloping horse when switched on. Galloping ceaselessly and yet arriving nowhere, the sole purpose of the little horse is to signal movement, or at least the intention of movement. In the same vein as Jenny Holzer’s work using LED signs, “Shahnoza dancing in bra and pants” plays on the power LED displays have to command respect and exert authority. Opie has also deliberately put the title label close to the work, tying this inert mark of institutional approval to her fluid dancing. But the lilting figure of the go-go dancer is at odds with these traditional ways of showing a work in a museum, so the work draws attention to these opposites — the high culture of the museum versus the titillation of a strip club — challenging viewers to reconcile them. But Opie is not trying to subvert the museum’s conventions so much as appropriate them.

“When I was younger I would often go around museums thinking the rooms themselves looked so great,” he says. “Whether the pictures themselves were interesting or not was another matter, but I liked the way you’d come in and see all these grand moments, framed around the room. So although I’m an artist doing the same thing, in a way this exhibition is a picture of a museum.”

Thus the story that Opie tells at Mito is of his dedication to making “sculptures that take the form of paintings.”

Master of flat without doubt inspired by Japan

It is fitting that Julian Opie’s first show in Asia is be held in Japan, whose history and culture of illustration as art inspired him to make many of the works on display. Opie collects ukiyo-e (genre painting) prints by Kitagawa Utamaro and Utagawa Hiroshige, as well as hand-painted anime cels. He says that he is still looking for ways to incorporate the latter into his work, but the influence of the ukiyo-e masters and a variety of other Japanese sources are already evident throughout the exhibition.

“Luc and Ludivine get married” (2007), a series depicting the faces of a man and a woman seen from the front, back and both sides, was inspired both by 19th-century English silhouette paper cutouts and Japanese kiri-e paper-cutting techniques. In the high-ceilinged, mausoleumlike space of Art Tower Mito’s third gallery, the gray outline of the supple acrobatic body of the frequently pictured pole dancer Shanoza is carved into shiny black stone sculptures. When thinking about what kind of works to show in this solemn space, Opie was inspired to use the granite and carving techniques when looking at the gravestones in temple graveyards around Japan.

The final two rooms of the exhibition display video works that show classical ukiyo-e style scenery set in the contemporary age. A seemingly timeless nighttime scene of lights swaying in the reflection of a lake is brought into the modern day by tiny twinkling lights of aircraft cutting across the black sky. In “View of the Southern Alps from the Nihon Alps Salad road (from the series Eight Views of Japan)” (2007), Opie plays a subtle visual trick with the layering of pictorial depth and the representation of reality. The vertical cartouches, which normally act as labels indicating the time, place and author of the work, have become part of the depicted world: One reflects in the water below it, while a flock of birds flying across the sky pass in front of the other. (Ashley Rawlings)

“Julian Opie” is at Art Tower Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture till Oct. 5.