Known for his digital artworks and minimal style, British artist Julian Opie is constantly challenging traditional approaches to portraiture. Inspired by Pop Art as well as the visual language of modern life, Opie, who lives and works in London, has become one of the most successful and well known artists of the New British Sculpture movement. Opie’s process – which he applies to landscapes, still lifes and cityscapes as well as people – involves taking photographs or short films and reducing them to pure surface and line in order to question how images are perceived and understood by the viewer.
Opie’s simplified forms are immediately recognisable for their thick black lines which are filled with solid, flat colour, in what could be read as an homage to both Minimalism and Pop Art. Opie draws particular influence from Roy Lichtenstein’s cartoon and comic book imagery as well as Andy Warhol’s commercialised style of portraiture and Patrick Caulfield’s bold outlined style. Opie also takes inspiration from sources as varied as billboards, classical portraiture, Japanese woodblock prints, Tintin, Egyptian hieroglyphs and road signs; turning to a vast array of media and technologies to connect the visual language of modern life with art history. His chosen medium often reflects this approach, marrying tradition with technology in the form of paintings, prints, LED displays and digital video.
In 1983 Opie graduated from Goldsmiths where he studied under the conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin, whose ideas around representation and semiotics have heavily influenced Opie’s own approach to art. Opie explores these interests through a reductive approach to image-making, famously exemplified by his images of people which are largely influenced by the history of portraiture as well as the universality of toilet signs.
Throughout his portraits Opie manages to convey the complexity of the human face and its expressions in just a handful of lines. He appears to do this by allowing the viewer – or ‘reader’, as he would put it – to recognise just enough of themselves in order to see their own experience and emotion reflected in the figure. While the sitter may seem blank faced and neutral – some critics have called Opie’s portraits ‘bland’ – they are in fact a carefully arranged composite with which the viewer can identify and relate. Far from impersonal or ambivalent, his figures become empathic and seem to overcome the barrier placed by the screen or the white cube of the gallery space, their gaze directly engaging with that of the viewer. Opie has said that he “sometimes [has] the feeling that all the portraits are really self-portraits” and this might go some way to explain the power of these works.
As well as exploring portraits throughout his studio practice, Opie has also worked on a series of commissions – including his famous portrait of James Dyson which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London – which have allowed him to explore the relationship between sitter and artist further; “It doesn't just affect one's understanding of the painting and the relationship one feels with the sitter,” he explains, “but also seems to show in the poses and expressions. I find this interesting and it helps in my attempt to make these images feel like familiar, museum portrait paintings.”
Opie’s Walking Figures
As well as traditional portraits where the sitter is shown looking out of the canvas, Opie has also produced a series of depictions of people walking in profile. Opie claims that “when you move, the world becomes more visible” as the act of walking allows us to be transported from the isolation of our screen or book into the outside world and our wider communities. Additionally, Opie uses walking to add some personality into his stripped back figures, allowing the ‘sitter’ to be characterised by their gait, which is seen by many to be as individual to a person as their handwriting.
Highly graphic, Opie’s images are derived from photographs and films of people walking. For Walking in Melbourne, Opie asked a local photographer to photograph people across the city, from the busy shopping street to the beach boardwalk. He then drew from these photographs, transforming the people into characters by reducing them to their defining features and freezing their movements on paper.
Not all of his works remain stationary, however. In 2015 Opie’s sculpture Shaida Walking was permanently installed on Carnaby Street in London. To create the work, Opie filmed a model walking on a treadmill and translated the film into his signature style, drawing each individual frame to create an animation. Opie then converted these drawings into a film which is shown on an LED display, of the kind that is normally used for billboards and information panels. Located in the busiest shopping area of London, the walking woman exists, as Opie says, “to stride endlessly as a living drawing and as part of the crowd.”
Landscapes & Cityscapes
Opie is also interested in landscape and how it too can be reduced to a handful of lines or shades of colour. In his Imagine You Are… series for example, he begins with photographs and digitally transforms the images, turning them into dramatically stark hand cut stencils. Each work in the series features an empty road, simplified to the level of a cartoon or video game background, which is flanked by greenery and appears to be leading the viewer to a future of blue skies, echoing tropes of road trip films and travel photography as well as racing games.
Many of Opie’s cityscapes and landscapes are based on personal experiences and places he has visited, and yet they are exceptionally bare of sentiment or memory. The viewer is given just enough information to be able to make their own journey through his work, and in this way Opie appears to be extending an invitation to his audience for whom he wants “the world to seem like the kind of place you’d want to escape into.” Lacking all traces of human presence, Opie’s landscapes therefore invite viewers to walk in and occupy the void that lies at their heart.
Eroticism in Opie’s work
Among Opie’s most popular figures are sexualised images of women, often depicted in a state of undress, or pole dancing, such as his famous series, This is Shahnoza. He has also produced a series of reclining nudes – male and female – and images of nude women holding yoga poses. With these pieces he appears to be both referencing the Old Master tradition of depicting Venus and other mythological or biblical figures as objects of arousal, while at the same time perhaps commenting on the liberated sexual mores of the 21st century where pornography and erotic advertisements are a normal part of everyday life, claiming, “I don't take responsibility for what's out there, but I use it nonetheless.”
Art as Commodity
In 2001, Opie designed the cover for Blur’s Best of album which featured the four members of the Britpop band in a grid, their faces reduced to dots and lines in true Opie style on block colour backgrounds. As well as winning a prestigious award, the cover propelled Opie to international fame and cemented his reputation as an artist who constantly pushed the boundaries of his practice and the tradition of portraiture.
At the same time, Opie had turned his work into a commodity, allowing it to be reproduced countless times as a product that could be bought and sold for very little compared to his editioned and unique artworks. In this way he was aligning himself with Warhol and Haring before him (and Banksy after them) who had similarly produced artworks in large editions and offered their fans a cheap way of buying their work.
Existing at the intersection of high art and commerce, the work speaks to the recent turn in the art world which sees galleries and artists becoming more commercial, embracing the tenets of advertising and PR, which in more radical times may have been snubbed, and adopting neoliberal models to cut costs, engage with new audiences and sell work in increasingly diverse ways. Opie is particularly open about the commercial aspect of his practice, having previously published a brochure of his works, presented in a similar vein to those offered by high street stores, which lists his sculptures and prints with prices for each, and even opening his own online shop of low price merchandise. Though inherently commercial, the brochure, album cover and shop also reflect Opie’s interest in making art accessible to the masses by appropriating the visual language of modern life.
Collections and Public Artworks
Opie’s paintings and limited-edition prints can be found in many important collections worldwide including the Tate Gallery, London, the Arts Council of Great Britain, the National Museum of Art, Osaka and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He has also produced a number of public artworks that can be found on the streets of Seoul, Zurich and Dublin, among other cities.