Julian Opie’s schematic reductions of people, animals and landscapes to lines and planes of color are slick, accessible, mostly predictable, fun, light, casual and flat. At his worst, when he’s doing landscapes, Opie’s works look too much like the simplified graphics of trees and fields that inevitably adorn the packaging of nutrition-free, cancer-inducing processed food. In the 1990s and 2000s the British artist’s unapologetic genericism seemed the perfect art for the era of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s glib big-tent blandness.
But, his images are so mesmeric. The hook is how Opie gets us to see more than he shows us. Some critics have derided Opie’s cartoonish style as interesting only as a kind of visual trickery, with nothing really profound to say. These days, though, depictions of multicultural cosmopolitanism, an Opie staple, seem radically utopian.
The high ceiling of the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, which is showing Opie’s solo show until Sept. 23, has allowed the inclusion of a 6-meter-high version of the 2019 relief painting “Walking in New York 1.” In this Diego Rivera mural for hipsters we can discern a woman with a bright red tote bag checking her mobile, an androgynous figure with two large shopping bags, two young men who could be wearing Muslim kufi prayer caps, or possibly beanies, and a woman who is either an obese nun or a pregnant muslim lady in hijab.
As is usual in Opie’s depiction of street scenes, the people walk past each other with relative indifference. Before 2016 this might have been seen as symptomatic of the alienation of modern urban life. Today, post Brexit-referendum and Charlottesville, El Paso et cetera, the banality of going about one’s business with easy tolerance of others looks like a message from an ancient civilization now lost to history.
If you’re prepared to give Opie’s simplicity the benefit of the doubt, the seeming blandness of his children’s book illustration style is knowing and uplifting. There is a delight in observing human anatomy that harks back to the humanism of the Renaissance. The insistence on exploring the mundanity of the everyday is not necessarily to make it seem more grand, though Opie has likened his portrayal of joggers to athletes on Greek vases and Roman warriors in friezes, but to communicate that you never know which particular arrangement of photons may bring you joy.
Different computer animations using flashing LEDs show stylized crows hopping around aimlessly, carp swimming from one screen to another, and groups of people walking or jogging. The crows, which by nature look even more like hieroglyphs than Opie’s Egyptian profile painting-inspired work usually does, are quirky and ambiguous. The carp are incredibly dull and the 24 meter-long installation looks like it’s headed straight to a hotel lobby in the Middle East.
With the exception of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, though, nobody does the pedestrian quite as interestingly as Opie. As well as the animated installations and painted wood reliefs, which look 2D until you get up close, there are also free-standing life-size metal figures dotted around the exhibition. The 2018 “Headphones” is a lad wearing black cargo pants, listening to his MP3 player with a plastic bag hanging from one arm. “Cardigan,” also 2018, is a woman with a handbag, her arms crossed, perhaps waiting for someone. I don’t know why these simple cut out characters are so fascinating, but I have the feeling that they will be for as long as I don’t overthink it.
“Julian Opie” at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery runs until Sept. 23; ¥1,200. For more information, visit www.operacity.jp/ag/exh223/index_e.php.