Celebrated British Artist Julian Opie Gets to the Essence of What, How, and Who We See

When British contemporary artist Julian Opie—known for the distinctive reductive style of his paintings, sculptures, animations, and public installations—was once asked to define the relationship between paintings and signs, he answered with a question of his own: “Maybe they are the same?” An apt response from an artist inspired by the graphic punch and flatness of billboards, who gleans much of his subject matter from city streets, chock-a-block with signage of all kinds. Paring down the sights and experiences of everyday life, rural and urban landscapes, and, especially, the people populating them to a choice selection of colors, shapes, and lines, he makes work that activates the imagination while getting to the essence of what, how, and who we see.

In contrast to the image-saturated, multi-media environment that this century’s technological revolution has brought to many parts of the world, Opie thinks in minimalistic terms. Explaining how he cuts through the visual clutter to embark upon a new work, he once said: “There’s this tendency, because, I suppose, we’re dominated by the camera, that we think of full-on HD resolution reality as being the starting-point, whereas … I tend to think of the blank canvas or the blank sheet of paper as the starting-point.” From this spare starting-point and with keen control, he has created such compositions as Banker, Detective, Lawyer, Nurse and Student (2014). Each painting in this suite features a cartoon-like image of one of the five professionals. Isolated against solidly colored backgrounds, in profile and with blank faces, and in the midst of walking, these figures are distinguished only by their posture, gait, clothing, and accessories. With no facial features or settings to provide a sense of narrative or individuality, the figures are left open to interpretation. Possibilities and questions flood the mind: Is the banker powerful or a peon? Is the detective hot on a trail or returning a phone call to his wife? Who is the nurse caring for? Where are they all coming from, where are they going, and what do we look like to others as we, like them, come and go?

Karen Kedmey

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