Art Julian Opie Interview

In his distinct minimalist style, Julian Opie, created a simplified version of a chaotic cosmopolitan city. 200% discussed with the English artist how he created – in the centre of London – a city within a city.

200%: It is very clever how you created a cosmopolitan city in a gallery space. Could you share how the idea of the show came about?
Julian Opie: Last year Lisson Gallery rented this space in Cork Street. When I was starting out, Cork Street was the centre of the London art world. Most of the important galleries were located here or nearby. You find yourself down here at an opening regularly once a week, but in the last ten years the galleries all moved away. Some of them are back now which is exciting. 

The gallery asked me what I thought about doing a show here. Over the last 30 years, I’ve must have done over ten shows with Lisson Gallery at their two Bell Street spaces. It is a great opportunity to do a show in Lisson’s new space in London.

200%: Is it a good gallery space to work with?
JO: I really like it. It’s a simple box space. You can see the entire space from the street which can be difficult for an artist because the audience might feel that they have seen the show before they even step in the gallery. There are no surprises left. I addressed that by using the front windows of the gallery as another wall. I’ve covered it with a depiction of urban buildings. From the street you get a glimpse of what’s inside. 

When you step into the gallery, the automatic doors slide open and the buildings move apart, in a filmic way. The gallery space itself is not small or big, it’s like a medium size shop. What is quite unusual for me is that the four life-size group portraits and a set of skyscrapers inside the gallery are exhibited against the walls which makes me a little bit nervous. I feel that I’m first and foremost a sculptor and I usually like bits of sculpture hanging on the wall.

200%: What made you interested to depict the interconnectivity of the urban environment with commuters criss-crossing through the streets in a lockdown period when people are asked to work from home?
JO: I wouldn’t say I have made a show in response to lockdown. The work for the show was conceived two years back, before lockdown. The process of drawing, planning, fabricating, re-fabricating takes about two years. Some of these works, though, like the figures, have been drawn since lockdown began. For me, art is not the most sensible language in which to comment on immediate current affairs as they move very fast. I guess I look at something that you might call the bigger picture. I don’t tend to draw things that are not yet the norm.

200%: You don’t comment on immediate current affairs because the work will date?
JO: Inevitably it will. If I would have drawn everybody with a face mask a few years from now that is going to look very specific. It would be difficult to look at anything else in the work – it’s going to be all about the fact that people are wearing those masks. Also, face masks are too small for me. At the moment the way I’m drawing, I don’t draw peoples’ feet and fingers because they are too small – a face mask is also too small to fit on my level of abstraction. 

200%: Which buildings in London did you draw for the show?
JO: Actually, they are Norwegian. I was working on an upcoming show in Norway and I wanted to draw buildings that no one would definitely go and see. There are some nice buildings in Oslo and beautiful buildings around Norway, but I wasn’t interested in them. I wanted to draw the most unappealing and unspecific buildings I could think of. Due to lockdown I couldn’t travel to Norway so I drew the buildings from Google Earth. Normally I avoid doing that because I feel there is some value in actually seeing and walking around the building and photographing it from the ground, but with Google Earth you can actually see the buildings from the air which makes it easier to draw. During the first lockdown, I spent a lot of the time in the studio circling above Oslo from Google Earth and these Norwegian buildings are actually here in the show. It seems a bit odd, but these suburban apartment buildings are so generic that I would challenge anybody to locate where they are. These 1960s and 1970s modernist post-war tower blocks are so ubiquitous. You’ll see them in suburbs all across Europe.

200%: I’m a big fan of your book ‘Portraits’ (2003) featuring Mark, the writer on the cover, and the portraits of each member of the Britpop band, Blur, for their Best of album cover. What makes a good successful portrait for you?
JO: What I was interested in during that period was the notion of the history of portraiture and looking at someone who’s looking back at you. What it feels like to go into the museum and view portraits and know that those people were looked at by the artist and they are looking back at the artist, and now you’re looking at these people and they are looking back at you. There is a triangular dynamic going on which is very powerful. When I started drawing portraits in the 1990s I looked at 17th and 18th century English and French portraiture, Kitagawa Utamaro’s Japanese woodblock prints and also Hergé’s Tin Tin and Japanese Manga. I was trying to figure out if I could re-engage in a new way with portraiture just like artists such as Chuck Close and Thomas Ruff have done.

200%: When I look at the portraits I’m fascinated by how you managed to capture someone’s character or personality with a minimal amount of lines.
JO: I don’t want to go beyond what is needed. If you start to over-embellish, you’re often lost. People talk about minimalism or paring things down, but I tend to see it as building things up. My inspirations for drawing people have been lavatory signs, road signs and public signs. In that case humans are depicted pretty much as stick figures with a circle as a head and I thought that was an interesting place to start. Almost like a pictogram of a person. Rather than minimising the information, I look at what I can add to that basic circle. 

In the 1990s, I started with a couple of circles, the eyes, the lines of the mouth. In ‘Portraits’ I was trying to find out what I could add. Add a bit of highlights in the hair, a bit of shine in the eyes, some colours in the clothes, some patterns on the shirts. I’m not sure that any of that added to the quality of the portrait, but it was an interesting experiment to see what I could add and what I could take away. 

Currently, I don’t do these type of portraits anymore that you will find in the book. The people that feature in my shows now are captured in digital photography and then drawn on the computer, and they don’t know that they’re being drawn. They are not portraits, they are heads, they are passers-by captured in public spaces, mostly seen in profile. These are not portraits, they are an image of human beings.

You mentioned Thomas Ruff who studied at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. He was taught by the artists Bernd and Hilla Becher who are known for their monumental black and white photographs of German industrial architecture. Inspired by this objective form of documentation, Ruff made a series of large-scale passports portraits of his friends and colleagues. He portrayed them with blank expressions. In ‘Portraits’ you depicted the people without any facial expressions as well. Is that because you wanted to create a certain ambiguity?
JO: When you first start drawing peoples’ faces you tell them to hold still. The reason for that is because it takes quite a while to draw someone. If they are moving around it is difficult to draw them as you can’t focus on their features properly. If you look at portraits in a museum on the whole, apart from the notable exception of Frans Hals, people are not laughing or in action. They are looking back at you and therefore you draw them as if they are an object. I think, though, Thomas Ruff’s depiction of people is a little bit different. His choice of people, the camera angle and the framing [of the picture] is very specific.

With my portraits I didn’t feel that I was following such a tight set of parameters. I have drawn people from the side, from a three quarter view and full frontal. I’ve made films of people smiling, blinking and nodding their heads for yes or no. I wanted to see what all of these things did. I think in retrospect, the still, straight gaze back at the viewer was the strongest of all of those positions for various reasons – technical and emotional. I wasn’t trying to say something specific by having a lack of difference as in Ruff’s portraits. My approach was “put anybody in front of me”. You just have to hope that they haven’t got curly hair! 

200%: Why is that?
JO: Curly hair is a nightmare to draw. I have drawn people with curly hair – myself included – and it is just very hard to draw in a pared down, simple way as it doesn’t have a clear form. It is too detailed.

200%: One of works of the 2018 Lumiere Festival in London was your light installation of a woman walking. It is a very playful work to watch.
JO: When I made these works of people walking, I recall when I watched the end result, that it kind of made me laugh. Just the fact that the presence of the person is now there. A bit like when you see somebody’s shadow. If you look at your partner’s shadow on the floor it’s not just an image of them it is actually them in a sense. Your shadow is part of you.

When the sunlight is hitting the facade of the gallery you get a shadow of the buildings in the street and the shadow of buildings that I drew on the front window across the floor of the gallery. There’s a kind of confusion between what is real and what is imaged, what is reflected, and I feel that is my point. Rather than talking about how cities change or the pandemic, that’s not the way I approach talking about the world. I approach it more from the perspective of what it feels like to look at a shadow and feel like it’s part of you.

Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers, 200%
Installation view of Julian Opie at Lisson Gallery © Julian Opie, courtesy Lisson Gallery, Self-Portrait by Julian Opie

Julian Opie, until 12 June, Lisson Gallery, 22 Cork Street London.

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