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Critical Review

The Ika series by Julian Opie from 2011 shows the same model in a series of different outfits and poses across a set of seven prints. Each print shows a three-quarter length portrait of Ika elegantly dressed, depicted in bright colours and thick dark outlines. Opie reworks his trademark style in this series of a simplified figure and floating circular head, by adding details such as long hair and opulent clothing.

This series is representative of Opie’s fascination with the genre of portraiture but rather than show a highly detailed character study, Ika appears like a generic sign. Using computer-drawing programmes to complete his works, Opie finds a standardised version of the human figure, such as the signs used on lavatory doors, and combines this with a digital photograph of a real person.

Balancing nuanced styles of Western art with graphic traditions of caricature and illustration, the portraits in the Ika series appear like 21st century versions of portraits of royals or aristocrats. In rendering the sitter anonymous by her featureless face and using a blank circle floating above her shoulders as a head, Opie subverts the traditional genre to provoke ideas surrounding what makes a portrait of a person distinct. The figure’s featureless face that Opie depicts in each print, works as a blank reflection from which the viewer can think of themselves and how they relate to it. Opie’s depersonalised style creates an ambiguous sense of subjectivity in the sitter that is extremely effective.

Why is the Ika series important?

Opie uses drastically simplified form to create the base of many of his portraits, embellishing each one with clothing, resulting in a variety of unique types. Producing this series with bright block colours and thick, bold outlines, Opie creates a set of portraits in their most basic mode. However, Opie makes the point that there is more to this print than first assumed: "Some people often talk about my portraiture being pared-down but I don’t quite see it that way. I see it as starting from a point of view saying, 'I’d like to make something, I’d like to mark my presence, I’d like to communicate what it feels like to look at things’."

The artist has created these images through the use of digital photography and computer drawing programmes, a creative process he is well versed in and renowned for. Initially Opie captures the sitters through digital photographs so as to get a feel for their personality and point to any crucial details that are integral to their character. He then chooses his favourite images and draws over the individual photographs on the computer to reduce and abstract the original image.

Looking to Opie’s At the Museum with Ika (2011), At the Museum with Ika series’ (2011) and works such as Ika in a Purple Dress (2009), it is possible to see how the artist explores many compositional and stylistic possibilities using the same set of photographs taken of the same model. Since the mid-1990s, Opie has explored the principles of modular variation across artistic media and art historical genres. Subsequently, Opie makes clear the way in which he wishes to offer these prints up as commodities to the viewer by creating multiple versions and possibilities for combination with the same subject.

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