British artist Julian Opie challenges traditional approaches to portraiture through his digitally designed and seemingly contradictory, depersonalised works. Working also with landscapes and cityscapes, Opie’s highly stylised work involves the reduction of photographs or short films into figurative reproductions created using computer software. The hallmarks of his artistic style are portraits and animated walking figures, rendered with minimal detail in black line drawing.
Opie’s simplified forms use thick black outlines which are filled in with solid, flat colour. Resultingly, these forms blend Minimalism with Pop Art. Opie draws particular influence from Roy Lichtenstein’s cartoon and comic book imagery as well as Andy Warhol’s industrialised form of portraiture, particularly through the use of the screen print, and Patrick Caulfield’s painted blocks of colour which are outlined in black.
Considering inspirations as diverse as billboard signs, classical portraiture, Japanese woodblock prints, Egyptian hieroglyphs and traffic signs, Opie turns to a vast array of media and technologies to connect the visual language of modern life with art history. Namely, his works have been realised in screenprint, LED, painting and billboard screens. Opie’s paintings and limited-edition prints can be found in many public 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.
In 1983 Opie graduated from Goldsmiths where he studied under the conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin whose ideas have largely influenced Opie’s own approach to the canvas. His choice preoccupation is with representation, particularly the way in which images are perceived and understood. Opie explores this interest through a reductive approach to image-making, famously done with his portraits. In works such as his own self-portrait, Julian, Artist. 1, Opie manages to describe the complexities of the human form by reducing the image down to the basics.
Among the types of portraiture Opie works on, walking images are the most often used. Opie claims that “when you move, the world becomes more visible” as you are transported from the isolation behind your screen or book into the world which moulds you. But even further, Opie uses walking in his art to add characteristics to his reduced characters. Just like with their handwriting, a person can be identified by their walk.
Highly graphic, Opie’s images are derived from photographs and films. A particular example is Walking in Melbourne which was created for an exhibition planned in Australia. Opie asked a local photographer to photograph people across the city, from the busy shopping street to the beach boardwalk. He then takes the photographed movements of and draws them, transforming the people into characters by reducing their characteristics and solidifying their movements onto paper. Though seemingly basic, Opie asserts that the characters like a man with a tattoo, a woman in a tasselled dress or a woman in a striped shirt swinging a bag on her back that emerge could not have been invented as each character is captured by chance.
Yet, not all of his works remain stationary. In 2015 Opie’s sculpture Shaida Walking was permanently installed on Carnaby Street in London. To create the work, Opie filmed people walking on a treadmill and translated the film into his signature style, drawing each individual frame. Opie then converted these drawings into a film which is shown on an LED display, that which 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.”
Opie also works extensively in landscapes, particularly seen in his Imagine You Are… series of 6 screen prints. Still using photographs as the basis for the series, Opie transforms the images into hand cut stencils using a computer to first alter the photograph. Each image features a desolate and simple street composed of a black road which is flanked by greenery, leading the viewer through blue skies. It is effectively reduced in the same degree as his portraits, but in a manner that makes it video game-like.
Opie’s cityscapes and landscapes are all based on personal experiences and places he has visited, yet, they are exceptionally depersonalised. The viewer is given just enough information to fill in the blanks in their own journey through his work, as Opie stated ‘I want the world to seem like the kind of place you’d want to escape into.” Lacking all sense of human presence, Opie’s cityscapes therefore invite viewers to walk in. This is true, too, of his portraits, particularly works like Banker, Nurse or Student from 2013. Each figure is depicted against a solid-coloured backdrop walking in profile. With this minimal information the viewer has the freedom to decide the story of each – if the banker is married to his job, if the student is on his way to take a test or who the nurse is off to care for. In this manner, Opie offers scenes to his viewer as commodities for them to personalise and digest.
This connection of art and commodity recalls the inspiration he draws from Pop Art. In fact, it was Opie’s 2001 design for the Best of Blur album, which not only won Music Week CADS Best Illustration award but was also the first of his works to catch the public eye, launching his career of continually pushing the boundaries of traditional artistic practice. In existing on an album cover, this work is inherently a commodity yet simultaneously a work of high art and therefore participates in the contemporary intersection between the advertising industry and artistic practice. Opie is particularly open about this aspect of his practice, having published a brochure of his works in a similar vain to those offered by department stores. Included in the brochure are his sculptures and prints, those which are produced in multiples, each set beside their price. Though inherently commercial, the brochure also joins Opie’s use of reductive landscapes and portraits to create his own visual language, akin to Egyptian hieroglyphics and road signs, which he personalises as his own.