Julian Opie's Gallery Staff series explicitly engages the 19th-century art historical tradition of silhouette portraiture. Opie encloses 'ordinary people inside picture frames, challenging the preconceptions of historical portraiture based in status, and urging the viewer to reconsider how they look at people, and people in art.
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As one of Julian Opie’s more unusual works, The Gallery Staff series shows a set of prints each with five full-length figures in silhouette. The prints are rendered as screen prints on transparent glass to show the wall behind and set in a black wooden frame.
The figures in The Gallery Staff are rendered in almost photographic detail, most notably in their facial features seen in profile and details in their hands. Opie simplifies the shape of each figure by casting them in a dramatic silhouette, each shown exclusively in black with small breaks to show the transparent glass in a collar or necklace.
The Gallery Staff series explicitly engages with the 19th century art historical tradition of silhouette portraiture, led by artist Auguste Edouart, whereby the new middle classes would commission family-group or individual portraits to record a moment in time. Opie has a strong interest in noticing silhouettes everywhere and has said of the genre, ‘It is one of the most common forms of drawing around, certainly in that period from late 18th to early 20th century. It’s so common it has become boring, and it’s kind of boring anyway in the sense that it does not stray much from reality.’
Opie’s use of the horizontal composition works to create an unusual setting for the figures who can be viewed as stand-alone portraits but simultaneously can be seen to be having small interactions with one another. Notably, Opie fixes each character in the same spot across the entire series, as they each change position, sit down, stand up and hold different props. Combined with the silhouetted style used, this works to create a sense of movement in The Gallery Staff series when all the prints are considered alongside one another and each print appears like an old film frame.
Opie has created these images through using 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, in this case to create dramatic silhouettes.