Published  19/06/2015

Julian Opie: ‘I’ve always used movement as much as colour or imagery’

Julian Opie: ‘I’ve always used movement as much as colour or imagery’

The artist talks about his current exhibition at the Alan Cristea Gallery, playing with the way we interact, see and deal emotionally with the world through vision, light and the brain – and making rude drawings of his tutors as a student


Julian Opie was born in 1958. He graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London in 1982, where he studied under Michael Craig-Martin, later working for him for a brief period. A sculptor, painter, printmaker and installation artist, Opie is now one of the UK’s best-known contemporary artists, exhibiting nationally and internationally. His current show, Julian Opie: Editions 2012-2015,is his seventhat the Alan Cristea Gallery.

Kate Tiernan: Previously, you have extended some of your works beyond the framed surface and on to the wall. Here though, we have a room of wall-mounted works.

Julian Opie: Ever since my big show at Hayward gallery in 1993, I’ve been grappling with how to work with such large spaces, and with ways to use the wall. I don’t like projecting my work on to it, as the result always seems very flimsy and thin. Instead, I use vinyl or paint, or – as here – computer-cut metal. The works in this room are as close as you can get to wall drawings that are editions. You’ll see throughout the show a project of black-and-white works of boats, sheep, fish, and so on. We’re [his studio] working on seagulls at the moment, but these were picked out as they work with me and for me. Most of the images come from Cornwall, as I spend a lot of time there, but if I came from somewhere else, they would be from there. The smaller fish are from the Ardèche river in France and the carp are from the pond in the Barbican. The boats themselves, in a way, are unimportant – it is what they do in forcing the wall into being a surface of water that matters. The sheep force it into being the surface of a hill and then the pebbles force it into being a beach.

KT: Can you talk a bit about the lenticular series?

JO: The project started from the point of view of movement, as my wife and I walked through a pine forest and I took a film of the trees. I love the way that it’s a very simple thing, but the trees furthest away from you move more slowly than the ones closer to you. It’s delightful, but it makes you very aware of your own position in the forest: it’s how you locate yourself through the difference of movement. Lenticular lenses came about in the 19th century as a system of creating the illusion of movement. You are used to seeing movement and your body says, “Yes, I’m moving through a forest” when, of course, you’re not. Using lenticular gives you 15 frames – the speed depends on how fast you yourself move – which is not a lot, but enough.

KT: The works you have made that are in the public realm are often seen from a moving bus or while walking down the street. A gallery is quite a different environment, perhaps a more static experience?

JO: I’ve always used movement as much as colour or imagery, or the way that things are made: whether you depict movement or suggest it, it seems to me to be essential, and I can often use real movement. You’ll notice in the gallery that most people wander, and lenticular is great for playing that back to the viewer.

KT: How important are optics and visual perception of the work, and would you describe them as playing with ideas of retinal art?

JO: The driving force and motivation in all this work is to investigate, and play with, the way in which we interact, understand, see, navigate and deal emotionally with the world through vision, light and the brain. It’s a question of what they do. Retinal discussion is not the most amusing on the face of it, but in the same way that the words of a song take you through the music, the subject matter of an artwork takes you through the process of looking at it.Having looked at the work, figured it out, processed it and, I hope, enjoyed it, then you’ve done what I think is necessary for me to play around with how you think about yourself in relation to the work and your body in the world.

KT: Do you think there is something different about the way we look in the city and the way we look in the country, in terms of survival?

JO: When you’re in the countryside, it’s not like there are any lions or tigers or dangers out there for us, and, in Europe, you are unlikely to get lost for some time. If anything, you’re in much more danger in the city: you are using your ability to look when you’re crossing a road in a very interesting way, you are judging speeds and distances in order to survive.

What I think is the case in a post-industrial world in the countryside, is that you are able to relax, take in your surroundings and be bored. I often find that it’s when I’m driving, or on a train, or going for a country walk and not doing anything that I’m able to experience what happens to your brain and your eye as you hear the wave and watch the shadow move up and down the beach. Those are the things you don’t normally have time to register and think about when you are crossing the road or at work. I can transfer all of that to Old Street [in east London], where my studio is, and imagine that the people are wildebeest and the traffic islands are actually islands with palm trees on. For some time, I have used the “idyll” of the countryside, not a farmer’s view – I’m looking at the sheep as abstract forms on a green background.

KT: You give this invitation to come in off the streets and look at the familiar in a different way through your work. In particular, there are themes from art history juxtaposed with new technologies and a more contemporary visual language.

JO: I’m playing about with the traditions of the picture postcard view of the countryside: I’m fully aware of it in these works and in the rather lovely St Ives School of painting I grew up with. What I tend to do, for example, is to counteract the pleasure, mobility and naturalism of a real horse with a betting shop sign. I have built the work using the technology of shop signs in laser-cut acrylic, which is very shiny and, in a certain sense, off putting – if you are in that mode of thinking of the countryside as natural and beautiful. In balancing those two things, it allows people to discuss what could be cloying if one was to do that in pencil on very rough, handmade paper. You can’t have one without the other: you’re on the beach and there are plastic bottles everywhere; you know about the ocean levels rising, but it’s nature and it’s all we’ve got.

KT: In the exhibition, we see works presented as a series. Can you talk about why you work in this way?

JO: I think about it quite a lot. How does one navigate an area where you don’t even know what to make next, or what you want to make, or what it would make sense to make? I suppose what I tend to do is plunge in – and that’s always been my ethos – when something occurs to me, or comes up out of observation of the world or a natural logic of what I’m making. So if I’m drawing people walking, then I think about children walking in a particular way and then I think – well, what about babies? Just a set of logical steps, no reason to do it, but I think, why not? And having done the baby, it becomes a project and my life for a bit.

In relation to the horses, what I really wanted to do was make a public statue of a galloping horse because, as public statues, they are classic. So I set about a long process of finding and filming horses and, having done it, I ended up with a lot of material. I make unique works, painted images and films, but there is something about editions that allows for a different way of working, and I’ve grown to really love it. Something like the lenticulars take a lot of setting up technically and to do all of that and just make one seems off. The small figurines in the Walking in the City series are based somewhat on Greek Tanagras, elegant but very small pottery figurines that were made in their hundreds ascasts, which people used to leave in temples in the Ancient Greek world. 

KT: You talk about experimentation and the on going process of merging commissioned works and new works. How do you navigate that?

JO: There is a constant circling and I have a slight tendency to reject things after about six months: I want to get away from them – either they are too colourful, too abstract, too complicated ortoo simple, too black and white, too figurative. At the moment, I’m reinjecting colour. Last year’s work was largely black and white, and at the moment, I’m doing coloured landscapes, and fairly brightly coloured works of people jogging that you’ll see in the next show I do.

I feel that, generally, it’s an additive process. I remember starting when I was in my 20s, during the 80s, and it felt very single-tracked. Every few weeks, the whole thing would collapse and I’d need to go and see double-bill movies and I’d feel really low. I’d have these collapses and rebuilds and it was quite emotional and difficult, whereas now I feel at ease with working on many tracks, sometimes five, six or seven, and I really enjoy that process. I think there is a tendency in the art world to think that artists make work and it goes into a museum, as if that’s the optimum. Slightly secondary might be that artists make work and it goes into a really great gallery that looks similar to a museum but actually isn’t one, and so on. Actually, there are lots of things you can do, from just scribbling things in public lavatories to making big works to making CD covers, T-shirts, vases, mugs, invitation cards or posters. At any one time, I have a number of these options.

KT: Can you talk about the series of figures Walking in London?

JO: I’d been filming people walking for some time in my studio, but I was in my car, waiting for one of my children to come out of school, and looking at the people passing back and forth, and thinking: “They’re actually better than my people.” Partly, it is the sense of capturing something real; if I have someone in my studio and tell them what to do, it’s technically very good and I can get the lighting right, but in the street, everything about them is real and purposeful and that rings true in the drawing.

This set was a large project of two or three years, where I began filming people on the streets. These are random faces – at the studio, we call them “wild walkers”, as opposed to the tame walkers filmed in the studio.

KT: These editions seem like a truthful translation of your work.

JO: I hope so. As long as it’s open and it’s what you actually wanted, it can be just as interesting. I’ve set up a web shop where it’s possible to go all the way in that direction and have un-editioned multiples. It often seems to me that if you can only make one work out of an idea, then you are doing something wrong. Anything that sets up a work, should work a number of times.

Some of the work is inspired by Roy Lichtenstein’s giant wood-block prints. By taking prints up to a certain scale, it breaks through the expectation of what a print is and can be. Maybe it’s a bit of an English kitchen sink thing, but I do think if you can find something that resonates or feels as if it touches something normal, something that you’ve really felt, perhaps it has more strength than when you find it in something extraordinary. I’ve been watching Peter Kay’s [TV show] Car Share and, in a very quiet, subtle way, it takes you through the most suburban and uninteresting areas of England, but it makes such a brilliant touching opera of life.

I’ve also been hand-painting quite a few things recently – such as the Tourist series – and it’s allowed me to get away from silk-screen colours, to use more vibrant colours and to give the work a very slight suggestion of activity. I like to think the way in which everything is made, and even framed, is purposeful and part of the meaning of the work.

KT: What, for you, is the difference between the anonymity of not knowing who the people in your work are as opposed to using more iconic figures, characters or moments?

JO: I’ve never actually set out to capture anyone iconic. I did once ask Alison Goldfrapp if I could draw her, and she said no. That was the only person. Generally, I take what comes at me, like the old-fashioned sense of a girl at a disco, who just sits and waits until someone comes and asks her to dance. I don’t go out and look for public projects or museum shows, I just get on with my projects and people come to me.

For a series like the lenticulars, based on people filmed walking in London, we work with these images for up to a year in the studio and if they don’t have a title it becomes very confusing, so I called them the Musician, Waitress, Detective, Architect. I just picked the titles randomly.

KT: How would you describe the quality of London’s picture postcard light?

JO: To me, it would seem rather erudite to seek out what I wanted. I think I feel more passive. Whatever comes, it’s a question of what can I make of that. I’m working on a project at the moment that’s about driving on the motorway at night where there’s not a lot of light. They are all sodium motorway lights or car lights coming at you: it’s a question of what can you do with that, that you can’t do with the glistening gorgeous light of the south of France. Setting out to have great light seems antiquated for me: the world’s not something that you can pick and choose and get very eruditely epicurean about – that doesn’t seem appropriate any more, but it’s more a case of dealing with what we’ve got and what we’ve been left with. If that is plastic bottles on the beach, then my way of managing that might be pictures of pebbles, but the works aremade of plastic – in that way it’s possible to somehow discuss what the reality actually is.

KT: Your work is often saying a very particular thing, yet with the space to delve behind the surface and question who the characters are and what their journey is.

JO: I’ve always enjoyed an element of teasing. When I was at Goldsmiths, I used to make artworks that were just pen drawings and stick them up around the college because I really wanted to exhibit and for people to react to the work. Often, they were a bit rude or a bit insulting to some of the tutors, though not in a mean way. I’d draw Richard Wentworth’s glasses and put “Richard Bloody Wentworth”. I knew he would be all right with that and it was a shared thing among the students: we all knew how great Richard Wentworth was as a tutor, yet he was so British with his glasses. I think I was extending that sense of interacting and expecting them to be looked at. It’s about offering some things, but at the same time refusing some things; being ugly as well as being attractive.

• Julian Opie: Editions 2012-2015 is at the Alan Cristea Gallery in London from 5 June – 18 July 2015.


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