York Couple

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Critical Review

Exemplary of Julian Opie’s signature portraiture style, the New York Couple series from 2019 shows pairs of people walking on the streets of New York in colourful clothes and with blank circles as heads. Opie uses his graphic visual language to create this series with the prints rendered in very thick, bold outlines and blocks of bright colour.

Throughout his career, Opie has produced many images of people walking in the form of static prints, paintings, sculpture, and moving images. The New York Couple series is reminiscent of his Walking in the Rain series (2015) and Walking Melbourne series (2018) that show full-length depictions of people walking in the same simplified, graphic style. Using photographs taken by the artist, each print is then manipulated and reduced to a matter of simplified shapes and signs to represent a figure. Producing anonymous ‘passers-by’ with which to populate his world, Opie’s figures are not devoid of personality thus maintaining a sense of individuality within multiplicity. The figures in the New York Couple series are defined by their casual clothing, bags that they carry and the woman’s use of her phone and are thus reduced to ‘types’, prompting the viewer to think about how we relate to and resemble one another.

Particular to this series is Opie’s interest in creating dynamic and complex compositions with implied movement by depicting multiple figures in a single frame and frozen in a fleeting moment in time. The movement in this image appears far more realistic than expected, despite the fact that the figure’s form is highly stylised and so Opie presents movement itself as a form of realism.

Despite their featureless faces these two figures are depicted with distinct characteristics like their hair and colourful clothing, producing an image of individual types. Speaking of his depictions of people from photographs taken in public, Opie has said, “Each figure throws up surprises and opportunities that I could not invent – a tattoo or a tasselled dress, a goatee or the logo on a T-shirt.”

Why is the New York Couple series important?

This series is also indicative of the way in which Opie prefers to depict people who are anonymous to the viewer, rather than finding ‘iconic’ subjects who are instantly recognisable as a particular individual. Opie instead depicts what he sees around him in daily life and it is the mundanity of his subject matter that makes his works so intriguing. In this vain, Opie himself has said, “I think the whole notion we carry of people as examples of types is very interesting… There are some key famous people who become these types and I want to extend that really so that everybody is a type if you draw them in the way that I do.”

Captured in the artist’s structured and graphic visual language, the New York Couple series encapsulates contemporary life in New York in a way that makes the viewer think about their own body in relation to the compelling image. Opie rationalises the human form in a decidedly stylised manner, striking a balance between the soft and human, and the hard and artificial, producing an uncanny effect. Undertaking a task that has preoccupied artists for generations, Opie captures modern life in an entirely unique way.

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