Village?, 2004. Plywood and paint, dimensions variable. Work installed at City Hall Park, New York. Image: Tom Powel Imaging, courtesy Public Art Fund

Balancing Act: A Conversation with Julian Opie

Julian Opie’s works—die-cut colored vinyl shapes reading as interactions between painting and sculpture, video works of pictographic reductions, and landscapes imbued with nominal, almost anodyne forms—have often been described as generic and benign fabrications. On an initial reading, anonymity, neutrality, and synthesized systems are Opie’s elements. His is a language of discipline and formal consistency. There is also a disturbing quality to Opie’s work, however, probably because it suggests that the viewer too is being “reduced” as part of the equation.

Opie’s titles frequently suggest emotional possibilities. They appear to invite viewers to project themselves into the work, to imprint themselves onto forms within the artist’s structures. It could be said that this method creates blanks to be filled (or re-surfaced) by viewers as they travel through his environs. You don’t expect to find principles of temporality in seemingly iconic works of this nature, but Opie creates a process between object and viewer. As you view his work, it appears to behave more and more like the world around it. We live with anonymity on a daily basis; we connect and disconnect as bodies rather than as identities or personalities and seem to exist in an increasingly synthesized system in which interaction becomes sprawling global connections of an endless journey, in much the same way as many of Opie’s constructions. What appears simplistic in the creation of a basic form is, in fact, a quite elaborate cognitive process.

Paul Black: The generic and the specific appear in a continual balancing act in your work, which expresses a quality that homogenizes but at the same time is specifically what it is, independent of that homogeneity—a psychological amalgam between the icon in 20th-century visual culture and an anonymous pictographic fabrication of everyone and no-one. How do you see this relationship functioning?

Julian Opie: I think that balancing act is key. I often change the things that are balancing, balancing the identity of the sitter and the abstraction of the sitter I was using—where I was using the generic and the standardized. In my latest work, perhaps the balance is between that and recognizing the thing at all. When you’re filming something you have movement, of course, which means you can abstract the image even more, because even if you have fewer lines, they’re moving lines, so these can tell the story in a way the still line can’t—through the particular way the lines move. These moving lines are there in the work to provide basic information through a lot of footage that I’ll now use to create works about walking forwards and backwards. That is one project. Another project is focused not on people at all, but I’m not sure what to call it, other than “landscape”—just using what you see when you open your eyes. In the past I’ve drawn a lot of what you’d call landscapes, again a similar kind of balance, that point where you don’t really know if you’re actually looking at anything but with enough information to do what a landscape picture does, which is to create space. I started out, about a decade ago, looking at computer games. I was drawing pretty much two bands of color, a green band and a blue band, just enough to create a space. I spent a lot of time growing up in Cornwall looking at the way the landscape works: there, you do only see two or three colors, the sea, a hill, and the sky. Your brain breaks down this information into what is relevant.

PB: Your world seems dissected into components, each a signifier of something in the real world but with relation only to the other elements in your art. Through the process, you create a working reality through a democracy of objects.

JO: I don’t agree with the term “democracy of objects.” I think that there is a sense in which I apply a kind of language to things, and that can necessitate finding a kind of commonality about them. I think I may look at commonality when I go about gathering information. People often talk to me about “simplifying” things, when in fact it is the contrary. I shy away from the idea of simplifying because, for me, it seems the other way around. Having started from nothing, with a desire to make something, having accepted that you are going to do that something, you are automatically complicating things. Everything you do post-“nothing” complicates things. When people recognize a more complex form, like a body, they see what I do as a simplification because they’ve got it in their heads what that thing already is when they look at one of my figures. And I do that to a degree—I take a photo and then only draw some aspects available from the photograph—but I still don’t see it as simplification. I see it as constructing out of the thing in front of me, and I try to avoid putting in more than is necessary since that seems, simply, a good rule to follow.

PB: There appears to be an oscillation between Minimalism and Pop art in your work. What early influences inspired you to construct this language of seeming simplification?

JO: Well, those are the things that I grew out of. For my generation, those two bastions of contemporary life back in the ’80s tended to be what you had to break as an artist, what you built from, if that’s how you see it, but I’m not certain that I do. I receive e-mails from people asking me if they can use my “style,” would I mind if they copied it, and I think, “What is my style?” I don’t have a style, I do what I do. The idea that something exists called Minimalism, or anything else, is less the function of the artist. I think it is more important and useful to view artists in terms of what it is they do instead of these vague terms grouping works together, like Minimalism. Certainly everything I am doing and have done is built very firmly on what other artists have done and my enthusiasm for that. Those moments are over anyway, but people can’t help but to continue and mull over and discuss what those artists did and the world that has been drawn from it. In some ways the world has changed a lot, and in some ways it has changed very little. The Pop side of things comes from two angles, perhaps one comes from the “mood” of the work that I do, or the processes involved. But when you work like that, or you are a person like that, it’s hard to define: whether you are Paul McCarthy, Jeff Koons, or Bill Viola, you can sense the essence—whether it has a sense of ridiculousness or not or a sense of humor or not. A lot of art trips back and forth across those things in a fantastic way, and I can only hope to deal with those difficult elements and that my work often has those very elements that people relate to Pop artists. And even though my work doesn’t aim to be Pop, I think there are times when the human mind relates all the visuals of which it is aware. This is the way I go around making work—purely through observation, and most of the world looks like Pop art.

(Left to right): This is Bijou, 2004; This is Kiera, 2004; This Monique, 2004. Baked enamel, glass, and concrete base, each glass 95 x 32 x 1.5 in. Work installed at City Hall Park, New York. Image: Tom Powell Imaging, courtesy Public Art Fund

PB: Your works are an interaction, almost an intervention, between painting and sculpture. What is painting? What is sculpture? Is there a difference? And how do you perceive the nature of surface?

JO: Well, again, when people ask me if I make paintings or say that I make paintings, I usually respond, “No I don’t, I make sculpture.” And if they say I make sculpture, I say, “No, I make drawings.” If I were to deal with it from the point of view that I only make sculpture then I would be ignoring aspects of painting that I believe are sculptural. This is an argument I often had with my ex-wife: she was involved in an idea of painting and of the work not being sculpture or sculptural. I can’t deal with that fixed notion myself. I’ve tried to make oil paintings, but I get involved with the surface, which I feel has its own tentative history. Personally I tend to think of all the things I make as sculpture: they may be things that hang on the wall and have color on the front, but they are still as much a sculpture of a painting as they are a painting. In that sense, every sculpture is really 100 percent surface. Whatever you get from that work, you are getting it from the surface. The surface is the tool. It’s very important to explore the possibilities of how the surface can speak, and I think there are a lot more possibilities than I have yet to come across.

PB: With no apparent narrative content, the symbolic units can relate in multiple directions. Is there no singular linear journey through your work?

JO: I’ve played around with a number of different ways of asking or expecting people to deal with the work, and I tend to do that both in group works and individual works. It’s an interesting question to be asked, because as an artist you do work and what it is that you’re asked to do. The art won’t exist forever, and I think it’s important not to take it for granted, like the gallery exhibition or the museum exhibition, which is probably why I like working on anything that comes up whether it’s a CD cover or a project for a touring Formula One team. There are all sorts of possibilities and various ways for people to come across the work—the challenge is to make a work that not only functions optimally in the particular situation where people are going to find it, such as a gallery or museum exhibition, but that can also survive elsewhere without ending up being only about placement. Instead of being wrapped up in how people come across the work and how they interpret it, it makes such an enormous difference where you find it. Finding a piece of work in the lobby of an insurance building in Tokyo, as opposed to a museum in uptown New York state, changes the meaning enormously—you can focus on that and make sure it really functions, which is not what I do, or you can try to come up with a kind of discussion that although it changes its meaning in different situations somehow it retains its logic.

I have made exhibition works that are above, beyond, or outside the nature of an individual work’s interpretation. For instance, I have made sculptures of cars, trees, and animals: in every exhibition, I set out to group these elements and to create a kind of world that you could walk through. With this inventory of objects, I would create exhibitions that were a kind of journey. But one of the difficult points for me was how that affected the individual work. For years I have focused on retaining certain elements of that quality of a “walk-through” world where the works can exist together and make “group” sense, but at the same time they also exist much more individually. When people walk around an exhibition I don’t think it’s necessary to make the works visually theatrical because people can carry an enormous amount in their heads. In one room you could have a picture of someone taking their clothes off and in the next room a close-up portrait, and an audience will make a connection between those two elements, those two people.

PB: What about current and forthcoming projects?

JO: One project that I have in the back of my head ties in with the works of people walking—tying them into the idea of statues, but making them relate to the Baroque, transposing the core nature of statuary. The two people walking on the steps of City Hall are on foam plinths, suggesting that they may be part of the building itself. These projects exist aren’t about a person. I stumbled across a model who walked particularly well and that tallied with the desire I had to focus more on the films of walking that I’d done, but perhaps a little more abstract. I want to zoom in on parts of the body as I’ve done with painting, to get to the stage where you have very little information but still have the feeling that you know you’re looking at a pair of legs, or a stomach, or an armpit, and when that disappears you are just left with a couple of lines.

Paul Black is a writer living in Oxford, England.

Julian Opie’s “Animals Buildings Cars and People,” sponsored by the Public Art Fund, is on view at City Hall Park in New York through October.