I was just thinking how powerful art can be and thought of a review I wrote of Julian Opie’s show at the Barbara Krakow Gallery in Boston in 2010 for Art New England. That review at 360 words couldn’t possibly tell the whole story so here tis….
Her name was Suzanne. She had a swimsuit model physique. (And, perfect lines.) I couldn’t see her face but she held forth in my living room and pulled all eyes and energy toward her, like a black hole. I felt jealous and insecure in her presence, fearing my husband might fall in love with her. She had to go.
So, we packed her in Styrofoam, a cardboard box, and strong tape to keep her safe. “Watching Suzanne (front)”– a black and white computer-generated enamel on glass portrait of a bikini-clad torso–by now fifty-one year-old British artist Julian Opie was returned to the Boston gallery that had loaned her to us. No, thank you.
This happened a few years ago when Opie was less well known in the United States. Now, “his work is incredibly popular,” according to Andrew Witkin (a friend) at the Barbara Krakow Gallery “because it is somehow familiar yet has the wow as well.” This combination has meant success. His shows sell out.
Opie’s latest exhibit, a collection of twenty-eight portraits, (at Barbara Krakow Gallery through December 7, 2010) represents the breadth of his work. Half of them, the most provocative and my favorites, are like “Watching Suzanne”—simple yet bold. His trademark of black lines with minimal detail against monochrome backgrounds is apparent in all these works. You can also understand why some have referred to him as “the master of the stick figure”. Opie, himself, compares these images to a “logo for a person”. “Verity Walking”–a young chicly-dressed woman set against a brown background striding along as if to her Madison Avenue office–is an example in this show. For the most part, the women are highly stylized and often nude and the men range from frumpy in “Enis Walking” to lithe in “Ryoichi and Mara”.
Opie is an original. But, he’s not an inventor. He’s a re-mixer. He compares, he references, and then he simplifies. If he were a writer, according to an interview with him in Graphics International Magazine, he’d be Raymond Chandler. “[Chandler] doesn’t sit there and write about the way he feels, or what his observations on the world are. He writes a detective story.” Plain and simple. And, in two words, that’s what Opie’s traditional works are. He reduces objects to their most essential lines. Their most fundamental forms. Fourteen of the portraits in this show, for example, are without eyes (or noses or mouths, for that matter). Instead, the heads are thick black-lined circles with skin tones that seem to come straight out of the Crayola multicultural crayon box. And they float above their shoulders with no neck to hold them.
The other fourteen, his newer styled portraits, have eyes, necks, and a parlor or a landscape as a backdrop. They are more modeled and specific but like Opie’s classics, equally generic. It’s ironic that the more detail he includes, the less dynamic and inviting the portrait. Maybe it’s because none of the people are smiling. “Alyssa with Pearls” has disdainful eyes and the darkly lit “Marina in Purple Shawl” looks as if she might just cut you out of her will.
Opie has been drawing since he was eleven years old. But now his computer is his “sophisticated drawing tool”. He starts by taking digital photos or movies and imports them into his vector-based drawing software, like Adobe Illustrator (a system used by graphic designers) that allows him to draw with curves. He then works with different printers, sometimes even an awning or sign manufacturer, to produce his images. Some of his works are shown on computer/LED screens. Others, in addition to this exhibit and museums like the ICA in Boston and the Tate in London, can be found on CD covers, billboards, building facades, and book jackets. “Art is a processing of reality,” Opie said in an interview with The China Post. And his own method of production—from person to computer manipulation to output–seems that he is quite literal in that interpretation.
Opie studied at Goldsmiths College in London with the British conceptual artist, Michael Craig Martin, who influenced him and is considered a key figure in the Young British Artists (YBA) movement—of which Opie is a member. Martin’s other pupils included Damien Hirst, Fiona Rae, and Ian Davenport.
It might seem paradoxical that Opie, a post-modern pop artist, finds his inspiration from 17th and 18th century Dutch portraiture and the 19th century woodblock prints of Utagawa Hiroshige, a Japanese ukiyo-e artist. The Dutch influence is apparent in the acrylic “Felicia with Peony against Landscape”–a woman in a blue evening gown posed in front of a red velvet curtain gazing anxiously into the distance. The composition could be straight out of a Ferdinand Bol portrait. But in this piece, Opie mixes 17th century composition with 21st century angst.
The intimate “Joo Yeon Contemplates her Imminent Wedding”–a continuous computer animation of an delicate young woman with blinking eyes, oscillating earrings, and swaying cherry blossoms in the background–with its striking colors and seasonal allusions suggests Hiroshige.
Opie’s art, although simple in form, is a mish-mash of styles. It’s part manga (or Japanese animation) with its minimal lines and dots for eyes in some of his earlier works. It’s part Warhol-influenced Pop Art in that his portraits, in their generic quality, suggest the homogenization of the modern soul. His method of creating two-dimensional, computer-generated images has made graphic designers think of him as an artist and artists think of him as a graphic designer. Yet, his portraits have classic compositions.
What’s consistent in all of them is movement. Opie’s choreography is obvious in his continuous computer animations. But even his still pictures suggest action. In both his “Caterina Nude” and “Ed and Marlanela” series, he captures the grace of his dancers. In earlier shows, his models are straight out of a strip club (dancing around a pole) or strutting like a catwalker. As he said, “Humans are always moving. Even sitting down, they are quite animated. So, to depict humans in a realistic way [I] need to use movement.”
Opie has long been examining how we as viewers see things. When he removes the details, leaving his bold lines and colors, his work is arresting. Those lines are powerful. I know because “Suzanne” spent a night in my house.