Julian Opie is adamant in saying that he is no teacher. He works flat-out and he’s fine with it. Yet, he is forthcoming, honest, self-aware and generous in his musings on nearly four decades as a visual artist. I’d say those qualities are pretty damned teacher-like. In any event, he is presently content to share past, present and future in the occupation title of artist. Nothing more or less.
Julian Opie was born in London in 1958 and lives and works in London. He graduated from Goldsmith’s School of Art, London in 1982. His work has been shown in major institutions worldwide including The National Portrait Gallery (London), Fosun Foundation (Shanghai), Neues Museum (Nuremberg) and The National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne, Australia). Group exhibitions include the 57th Venice Biennale (2017), the Barbican Art Gallery (London), documenta 8 (Kassel), and the Shanghai Biennale (2006). Public commissions include the Lindo Wing, St. Mary’s Hospital (London), Heathrow Terminal 1 (UK), and Barts & The London Hospital. His design for the band Blur’s album Best of Blur (2000) was awarded the Music Week CADS for Best Illustration in 2001. Opie lives and works in London.
From our Fall 2021 Issue, for the first time online, FRONTRUNNER is proud to present a conversation with Opie. Our sincere thanks to Lisson Gallery (London/Shanghai) for making this interview possible.
For the better part of three decades, your work has, in one way or another, revolved around a delicate balance between reduction and formation: you create a likeness of a person or an object with minimal material expenditure. With the COVID-19 pandemic having stripped away so much from the human experience, how did you approach your new series that include, what appear to be, apartment blocks?
I suppose it’s somewhat inevitable. Every discussion in every taxi cab and every pub, every family meeting is going to come around to talking about the pandemic. I wouldn’t say it’s had an effect on the work. It’s had an effect on the show in the sense that it’s been postponed, which is unusual. I’ve even learned the word in French. The way that I work, which I imagine most people do when they get to my age, is about two years-ish behind the actual exhibiting of the work. I like to think that I put work out there quite quickly, and every now and again I do. I’m just working on a show in Valencia where I had a project that was bubbling under the surface as an idea, and then this project came up. It was an opportunity to just fast-track the whole thing and make the work.
So, I’ve never made a model. I’ve never seen anything, they’re twelve metres high, two giant statues. It’s exciting, it’s a bit nerve-wracking but that’s not the norm. The norm is that you’re working on a whole bunch of work and you’ve got some vague ideas. You start to play those ideas out with drawings, photographs, models, you talk to fabricators, you make tests in wood, you make other tests with the paint colours, you reject the tests, you reject the whole project, you take it back on board again, you find another fabricator. Especially with a new type of technique or system, inevitably two years tick by, by the time you’ve actually got something. Even then, with the postponement, we were drying the paint the weekend before the exhibition. It’s kind of endlessly frustrating that it always seems to come to this, but at the same time, I guess it’s my fault, really. I’ve always seen it right from the days of art school, the late 70s, early 80s. Sometimes I get curators saying, “Great!” So, I would suggest, “I’ll start working on your show,” and I don’t know what they’re talking about. No one works on my shows. My shows are a hundred percent prided and decided and placed and organised by me. Full 3-D walkthrough models to show people. Every now and then, of course, people say, “Oh my God, we’re never going to be able to sell that.”
But, as I say, the actual exhibiting of the work, the showing of it, the seeing of it, is as important as the colour, or the form, or the reference, or the subject matter of the work. It’s all a part of the same thing. There is one pandemic story, I suppose, attached to the building. I had a show in Oslo, lined up before this period. It’s been postponed twice. They asked me if I would consider drawing people in Oslo. Now, I’ve done that around the world in Melbourne, Mumbai, Boston, New York, and some others. It worked quite well for me. It kind of gave a fresh look at some clothes and weather, and it also meant that when I arrived at those places, I was exhibiting to people images of themselves, and people seem to respond well to that.
I’m working on a project in Lisbon. [The] people that I was drawing had coats on and they were saying, “It’s hot here, people don’t have coats on,” which is a very literal reading of an artwork. You don’t particularly have to have the same weather in the painting on the wall as you’ve got around you, but that’s the way it goes. But it did get me thinking a bit about another project which was to make some buildings. It was the first lockdown, and I couldn’t go to Oslo to draw the buildings, which is what I would normally do because I like to be as involved as I can in a project. So I used Google Earth, and to be honest, it was pretty useful; it meant I could browse the suburbs of Oslo very quickly, rather than driving around in a car, and I could see the buildings from the air. I guess my tongue was slightly in my cheek in the sense that when they asked me to draw Norwegian people, I think what they were hoping for was some sense of Norwegian-ness. What I have given them, or will give them, will be a group of buildings that although they are drawn from there, couldn’t be less specific. But since then, that idea of using Google Earth to look at the world and gather information has crept into my practice, and that was one hundred percent due to the fact that I couldn’t get out and do my work. I don’t know where that will go, it’s broken some kind of barrier for me.
We’ve been insulated by the familiar, I think, during the pandemic. Which is why I thought you know your comment about Norwegian-ness was interesting, then about Lisbon too. But, familiarity also breeds contempt.
Yeah, true. And you know, where’s the role of the artist in that? Do you become a kind of travelling showman? I collect some work by an artist called Auguste Edouart. He used to go around the world going to small towns. He was a silhouette artist. He’d hire a hall and put up some pictures of his, and invite people to come and look at that and get their silhouettes cut. It’s a service, really, like a cobbler. There’s an artist called Arthur Devis, he’s a fantastic English artist from Preston who I collect his work, as well. He brilliantly did these very small paintings. He’d travel around with a wardrobe. You could go to him, he’d have hired somewhere in town, and you could look through his wardrobe; choose who you’d like to look like, [like] a naval captain and then you could choose the background to make it look as if you owned a manor, or if you were out in the country, or at sea or something. He’d give you the portrait and there is that idea of the artist, in a way. Suddenly, travel is feeling very different. I’m not going to start waxing lyrical about what the pandemic has meant for people – it’s just life and it’s different for everybody. For the time being, it’s an exotic thing to do that you really think twice or more about whether you want to do it, whether you can do it.
This series was especially intriguing to me. My masters course was centred around postmodern-dystopian architecture. There was a lot of reminiscing going on because of the nature of the prefabricated apartment blocks. In the context of the show being in that space, it felt sad. A poignant commentary on escaping the urban sprawl, and the concept of open space which is now pushed on us. Open space is “healthy”, it’s long-term survival versus being crowded in a building. But, there’s never much to hope for beyond sustenance, even in the earliest types of contemporary urban planning. I mean, Le Corbusier never had a salvation design. What do you feel upon further reflection?
Well, personally, I look at what I do over a broader range than that. We don’t quite know what the future is going to be, but then do you ever? I’ve seen different times come and go, being the age I am, and yet I see myself coming back to the same issues, the same techniques, and the same solutions again and again. Sometimes with frustration, sometimes with a sort of fondness and a sense of who I am, I suppose. I was asked to be in an exhibition by Michael Craig Martin at the Whitechapel Art Gallery called Drawing the Line, maybe in the early nineties. The work I put in there was a drawing I’d done on the computer. They were pretty new at the time. I didn’t even use the same drawing programme at that stage, and it’s of a 1960s office building in a black line. It basically looks the same as the drawings that I’m working on now to make these statues. So, that’s a long time ago, and that wasn’t the first time I’d drawn that kind of thing. These buildings, I think, have got a very powerful and ambivalent stake in our minds and our lives.
I was born in 1958 so, those buildings were being built during that period. I actually grew up in Oxford. Many of them [were] around the centre of Oxford, which was where I was living. But as soon as you went towards the edge of any town, however exotic or interesting, whether it’s Prague or Paris or Hamburg or Oslo, you very quickly hit an area that is created by that kind of environment, that backdrop. It’s not that I’ve approached them without any knowledge of their status, their role, their complex history in terms of modernism, the [Second World] War, social housing. There’s all of that stacked into those rectangles and those drawings. If I want to describe existence, movement, turning, sensing your surroundings, I use what I see, what is around me, and to a certain degree I’m not passing any kind of comment or judgement. There are people around me, so I draw them. There are cars around me, so I draw them. They are the tools. If I lived in Southern India, or if I lived in the past on a desert island, I would be using what I saw around me in order to create the artworks I made, whether it was sand and palm trees or ice water, cliffs. No doubt that would have an effect on the work and it would shift it, but it would still be me approaching the work, dealing with the work, turning the work into a language, using that language to talk about what it’s like to be alive.
As someone who has created and posited so much into the art world, using your medium in terms of economy, what do you think is missing or lacking in the visual arts landscape? Or what would you like to see more of from younger artists coming into the fold?
I’m very unengaged, as a person to ask. I don’t teach, I don’t lecture, if I can help it. You could say I’m just very self-centred. I remember a friend of mine, a long time ago, talking about whether one should teach, whether you have a sort of moral duty to get involved in teaching. It’s all until recently, she had been taught and appreciated it very much, and she felt that her best contribution was simply to paint. Of course, that’s a nice easy answer to get away with not teaching. I have taught in the past, I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would do and actually I’m not even sure I was very good at it. I don’t teach now, I just work flat out all the time and it’s not through any kind of great social sense of doing the world any good. I have to admit, it’s really because it’s what I love and I’m getting away with it. It’s a huge world and there’s so many faces to go and to show work. It certainly doesn’t feel like there’s any limit and I don’t feel yet that there’s any limit in how much work I’d like to make and how many ideas I’ve got buzzing in my head of things to make.
I am fascinated by what other people make. I spend most of, well, a lot of my free time and most of my free money on gathering other people’s art. I swap art with people, too. My studio and my houses are packed full of art made by other people. In many cases, they’re artists working now, but there were an awful lot of cases going right back to collecting Homo Erectus hand tools, things that were made in the past. I don’t care, the older the better. I really don’t mind. I keep discovering new areas where I’m just knocked out by the art that was made. I just bought a lot of pictures by an Indian artist called Gauri Gill, who I think is really great. I celebrate when I see something that jumps out at me and seems to really honestly talk about life, experience, and the world. If it’s in a fresh new way, all the better. I sometimes say that I think that animals are underrated in art.
One thing I’ve loved about your work, as long as I’ve seen it, is that you tease the boundaries of homogeneity. I’m sure you’ve heard time and again about reductivism. I don’t know if minimalism is applicable – I don’t think it is to your work – but reductiveness doesn’t erase or compromise the subject. Do you think that’s something that you developed over a period of time, or was it very present early on in your practice?
Okay, yes. Don’t talk about minimalism or Pop. Anybody that starts using either of those, those are specific descriptions or names for a grouping of art that was made at a certain point by certain people. Effectively, you can’t really make minimalist art now, you can’t make Pop art now. I grew up loving, being surrounded by and discovering minimal art. I think a lot about it and I look at it a lot. Then I’m kind of guided and inspired by it, but I don’t make it. I think with the word reductivist is a bit clunky, but kind of interesting and sort of reminds me of the word drawing.
Drawing as a synonym for extraction, in a way.
Well, extraction from the world, but also a kind of engagement into and with the world. I remember as a kid, we didn’t used to have anything to amuse ourselves in a car. If I read, I would feel sick, so long car journeys were torturous. One of the things that I would do would be to look at the distant landscape – you’ve probably done the same – and imagine my hand or a pencil line going up for the silhouetted landscape. Effectively, what I was doing was drawing a moving landscape that described the entire journey, which I’ve virtually done since then. In the same way, when having a shower, I would look through the glass at the rest of the bathroom and in the foam and the steam, use my finger with one eye shut to draw the bathroom. You’d end up with something that was kind of a drawing, but also in a certain sense, a bit more like a shadow or a reflection than an actual drawing. Before drawing, or during periods when art wasn’t really a thing, early humans would have seen reflections and shadows. I think that the human mind is such that we would be able to understand that what we’re looking at is both an extension of reality, but also a drawing of a drawing of reality, as well. A bad day for me would be a time where I’m not doing that, and the best moments are when I’m so utterly aware of the fact that my surroundings are three-dimensional (and that I’m in them), and that I’m registering and drawing them in my mind. There’s something I can do with all of that, as is my role as an artist.
I can make a shadow. I can create a manmade or a human-made reflection of the world. So when people talk about reductionism, I get it. I can see that I do end up making these things that have a sense of reductiveness about them. One person who interviewed me said, “Why no feet?” I come across that quite a lot, and in a certain sense, yes the feet have gone, they are reduced. But in another sense, I’ve actually worked my way up, because drawing a person is a complex undertaking – not to suggest that I’ve managed something difficult, but it is difficult. Everybody’s drawn people from time and memorial, and it’s not an easy thing to suddenly come up with a method or a way of doing it that’s particular, or of any interest. The way that I had finally managed to approach doing it was by looking at pictograms, signs of male and female lavatories, safety signs, road signs, and images where humans were depicted in a perfunctory, functional fashion. So, I took those lavatory sign images – you must be able to remember in your head because we use them so often: circle for a head, splayed skirt for a woman and straight trousers for a man, no feet. Obviously, why would you put feet in? That’s not the point. The point is that you want to tell people which door to go in. I know that this has got its own political discussion, but we don’t need to go into that.
There’s something kind of comforting about the universal truth that can be communicated in those stable forms.
Yes, and what’s amazing about those stable forms is that then, you can use them as a language to do all sorts of things. What I’ve really built up from the circle and three lines-type of situation is to, what I feel, is actually quite a complex set of solutions.
My last question’s a bit more fast and loose. If you could have up to seven items in your studio or your work environment that you can’t go without, what would they be?
Okay. Well, no pets allowed in here. Occasionally, I see a mouse scattering across the floor. I like to eat porridge in the morning, that gets me going. I work with about ten other people spread around the studio and another one nearby. Most of my time, I’m sat in front a computer working, but every twenty minutes or so I get up and go and talk to one of them about something that we’re working on. So, my computer, of course, when they go down it’s a little difficult to think quite what I’m going to do! I use a stylus, I draw looking at the computer, so I don’t look at my hand. I look at the computer as if I was drawing with a pencil, and then I can communicate that out into the world: I can store it, put it on a website, communicate it and send it to fabricators. We all know that’s what computers are really great for. I work in a building that’s a 19th century, old factory building in Shoreditch. The top floor has got a main frame roof and skylight. It’s very nice and quiet and up above the street – which has become very busy and nightclub-y and chatty – but up here it’s kind of quieter, and I fill the entire room with other people’s art.
Every time I look up, I’m looking at an Egyptian statue, or a medieval knight’s helmet, or a Borneo beaded baby carrier, or a contemporary artwork; something which will both excite me visually and also suggest solutions to the questions and decisions that I’m constantly facing. I have these set of homo Erectus stone hand tools which are stunningly beautiful: pear-drop shapes, made between 500,000 and a million years ago. The connection, the idea, the sense that hands and eyes and shapes and drawing is there as a human connection over such a huge amount of time is really important to me, and I can’t imagine working without that being around. My assistants, they’re great. I have a wonderful teams one of the have been with me for like, over fifteen years, maybe twenty, so I’ve seen their kids be born and grown up and, that feels really nice. They all seem to get on kind of well. It’s a very dynamic way of working. If I want to get something made, I know out of those ten who to go and talk to and we kind of get that ball rolling, and then we can have ten balls rolling, effectively. It’s really good. I use the neighbourhood for quite a lot. I’ve drawn Old Street so often. If I need some people these days, rather than going to distant places, I usually just wander up to Old Street roundabout where there’s almost a constant stream like a kind of, like a palette of people that is constantly changing, very mixed.
Like a carousel.
It is like a carousel and it’s like a palette, like a swamp. Every time I need some more people, if it’s suddenly hot, I’ll say to my assistants, “Come on, let’s go,” and we go and photograph lots of people wearing the kind of clothes people would wear when it’s hot, and likewise when it gets really cold, we’ve done the same.