Juan Manuel Bonet: The Painter of Modern Life
Catalogue text for CAC Malaga museum show.
I begin these lines on Julian Opie in the early hours of the morning on my laptop at the Hotel Mencey in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a fascinating 1940's hotel, a hotel that could be in Singapore, a hotel like something out of a Somerset Maugham novel.
I stop writing. After a while my screensaver, downloaded from the Internet, starts up: a narrative sequence by Opie himself from 2002, featuring views of a Formula One race track and the faces of the drivers, Jacques, Olivier and Ryo, at times hidden under their crash helmets, at others wearing caps with the Lucky Strike logo (Lucky Strike sponsors the Honda team portrayed here and commissioned this particular work of Opie's). This electronically reproduced artwork, freely available on the Internet, which has kept me company in the most varied places for the last few months now reminds me that CAC Malaga is beginning to send me signals that they are awaiting the article I have promised to write for them about its author, that great artist of our time that is Opie, whose work, so clear and clean, keeps us company in so many places. I have brought a catalogue or two of his in my - light - luggage, in the hope that this hotel will inspire me, guiding me towards an artist who is also a wanderer, one who, as far back as 1985 (the year of his first institutional solo show staged at no less a venue than the ICA in London) painted the image of luggage on to steel, Project for Heathrow and who, ten years later, installed videos at London's main airport showing idyllic British landscapes along with, in some transit corridors, several light-filled murals which also featured landscapes, entitled Imagine you are moving. Another series from the same period, entitled Imagine you are landing, provided an aerial view.
Opie, the painter of modern life. There are not many artists today for whom I would dare to appropriate (as the astute reader will note that I have here) the famous title "Le peintre de la vie moderne", which Charles Baudelaire gave to his 1863 essay that was published in three issues of Le Figaro on his friend, Constantin Guys, the painter who matchlessly portrayed in outstandingly inspired works, the Paris of the Second Empire. On the other hand, a title like "The photographer of modern life" would be appropriate for several photographers today. Andreas Gursky, for example, would be an excellent candidate. How many cities, how many neighbourhoods, how many industrial and leisure centres, lead us to exclaim: "This is... Andreas Gursky!"
Our Opie world. How many times do we see such and such a place, such and such a character, through his eyes: "This is... Julian Opie!"
Opie, or the multiplicity of supports. This is a key characteristic of his, one which makes him a prototypical artist of our time. His images, so elemental in appearance, though they may turn out to be amongst the most complex and sophisticated that can be found on the international scene today, his paintings, his sculptures, which he himself describes as "objects in an Ikea catalogue", his plasma screens, his artefacts, in short; his products, assault us, not only in galleries and at art fairs or in the private sphere, such as the screensavers I refer to at the beginning of this piece, but everywhere along our urban routes as travellers and flaneurs at this point at the turn of the century. On posters and calendars, on the cover of a CD by the group Blur -The Best of Blur, EMI, 2000, on a U2 stage set, on lighted screens, on a huge glass installation at Selfridges department store, on an advertising hoarding outside the Tate Britain gallery, on the cover of Granta magazine, in supposed traffic signs beside a railway line... The fact that Opie's website is very well designed - especially compared to others that are so bad they are embarrassing - featuring not only photos of paintings and sculptures but also animations and audio is another sign that he, more than anyone, is an artist for today, a democratic artist, an artist with a "factory", like Andy Warhol and others in the 60s. An artist who is beginning to be imitated all over the place and I get the feeling that this is only just the start.
Opie's gift of ubiquity: never clearer than in his portraits of the members of Blur, which we can see on the cover of the CD, on the side of double-decker buses, on bags and T-shirts... and in his four paintings, installed in no less venerated and quintessentially British an institution than the National Portrait Gallery.
It is clear to me that Opie's artistic universe is, to put it in the language of a "comic-book" critic, one of "clear line", if you will pardon the redundancy. Like another recent "inmate" at CAC Malaga, the German artist Neo Rauch (see what I wrote about him in the catalogue) Opie is also a great fan of Herge, a point that James Roberts stressed in 1984, in his piece "Spam for Tea" for the retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London. What Opie admires about Herge is his ability to build his stories and his narratives in a direct, detailed yet concise style. The British artist has learned much about this style from his Belgian counterpart.
United by our passion, Opie and I spent half the dinner at his latest opening in Braga, at Mario Sequeira's spectacular gallery talking about these things. We were aided in this by the presence of his wife and, in a pushchair, a little one who had not yet joined the fellowship of "young readers aged from 7 to 77", as the slogan ran. Also the clean ultramarine blue of the provincial night, a night that brought to mind some of the paintings the British artist had recently made of his journey to the North, and which formed part of this exhibition. We talked about Herge's magic, his narrative, his universal poetry. The Belgian artist is present in the form of several cartoons from Tintin and The Seven Crystal Balls, on page 7 of the retrospective book the Tate Modern devoted to Opie in 2004. I imagine due to the shared wish of the editor, Mary Horlock and the artist himself, whom Horlock reports as saying that one of his first ironic works of art about art was born in the early 1980's from one of those cartoons, the one in which the lightning bolt comes down the chimney and causes chaos in the library.
On that evening in Braga, in that charming Portuguese house where there is also a fantastic large painting of a shadowy wood by Alex Katz, we also talked about a certain clear line in British painting. A lineage in which we both agreed that the basic landmarks are the recently deceased Patrick Caulfield - whom Christopher Finch, in a study as early as 1971, saw as the London art scene's equivalent to Roy Lichtenstein - and Michael Craig-Martin, a North American by birth and whom I included in the IVAM programme at Centro del Carmen, now closed. Caulfield and Craig-Martin are two artists that the work of Opie, the younger man (firstly a pupil at Goldsmiths School of Art in the years 1979-1982 and later an assistant to Craig-Martin) has helped in some way to be re-read, to relocate.
Herge, but also Hiroshige. Most appropriately, Mary Horlock placed a woodcut by the latter in the margin of her text for the afore-mentioned book and we should remember too that the author of The Blue Lotus also greatly admired Hiroshige, as he did all the Japanese masters.
Opie has had several shows in Japan. Some talk of him in relation to manga comics but, as this is a subject I know little about, I do not have a clear opinion on the question. The series of paintings inspired by a family holiday in Bali in 2002 are also very beautiful as is the animation on the same subject (see the artist's website) with Balinese musical accompaniment. The most Blue Lotus of his entire work to date is the portrait, produced in Bali that same year, of Komang, beach vendor with his fantastic hat.
We discovered Craig-Martin exactly twenty years ago at a collective show in the Palacio de Velazquez, in times of Carmen Gimenez, considering him one of the most brilliant representatives of a new British sculpture that had considerable impact on our own emerging artists at the time. Opie reached us two years later also as a sculptor as his work at that time was exclusively in three dimensions. And, as occurs in the case of his master, this work has very little to do with what he is doing now. In the second half of the 1980's Opie seemed to us more than a post-minimalist, a neo-minimalist. The works forming the transition towards this second period possess great spatial complexity and are executed in a distant mechanical, industrial manner and from that moment on the artist's characteristic style. Soon this language was refined, moving towards more elemental forms in the manner of a Donald Judd, a Donald Judd with connotations, at times, of the industrial or architectural "objet trouve". Opie presented works in this style at Documenta 8 in Kassel in 1987. This was followed the next year by his little remembered first solo show in Spain, only his ninth. The exhibition venue was a pioneering Madrid gallery, now closed, and whose owner and director we also lost prematurely. This was Manolo Montenegro's gallery, in Calle Argensola, a space we often return to in memory for it was here that we also encountered the work of, amongst others, Washington Barcala (also deceased), Victoria Civera, Maria Gomez, Anton Lamazares, Francisco Leiro, Eva Lootz, Perejaume, Antonio Rojas, Soledad Sevilla, Susana Solano, Juan Usle...
From that period, Opie has conserved a certain taste for geometry and for Neo-Geo: for example, for works by the likes of the now universally known Peter Halley and Gerwald Rockenschaub, more of a secret.
Before becoming a neo-minimalist for a time, Opie had practiced ironic art, or "art about art", somewhat similar to the way the Equipo Cronica group had experimented with it in Spain two decades earlier. In his unusual paintings on steel and in his parallel three-dimensional assemblies, also made from steel, such as his aptly titled Eat Dirt Art History (1983, the year he gave his first solo show at the Lisson Gallery, which signed him on and where he continues to work). There is an imaginary museum, "totum revolutum", the books alluded to previously, put into disarray by the lightning bolt in The Seven Crystal Balls, a eulogy to fragmentarism, quotations in a deliberately crude style from famous paintings by Frans Hals, Ingres, Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian, Pollock, Rothko, his compatriot David Hockney... Irreverent works, he would call them, though they are at the same time profoundly reverent, since they are based on others he admires. Books too, tumbling down, a little like those of Alicia Martan today in the painting on oil entitled Incident in the Library II, 1983, or in the sculpture that Walter Konig commissioned him to produce the following year for the front of his bookshop in Cologne.
From this ironic art about art, which could hardly take him much further, to the deliberate dryness of minimalism or neo-minimalism and from this to sharp profiles and flat inks - but also the cordiality - of clear line and computer work: a peculiar, highly heterodox way of reconciling, as Robert Indiana had done in some of his early works and as Lichtenstein himself would later, the two faces of art in the 1960s, the art of years long gone in which Opie had enjoyed the plenitude of childhood whilst I, five years older, began to leave it behind. And always the precision, the precisionism, as they used to call it in the United States in the 1920s. A cool line: from Clean Abstraction (1983), passing through the neo-minimalist sculptures like those that Montenegro showed here, or those in the Night Lights series, reminiscent in their use of neon to the works of Dan Flavin and which culminated this stage in 1989, though it was continued in some shelves in 1991, to the portraits of today. Always the same economy of means, exactness, rigour: the qualities that Lichtenstein admired in Fernand Leger.
Even in 1991, Opie was included in an interesting London exhibition exploring what remained from the pop art period. The show, which took place at the Serpentine Gallery, was entitled Objects for the Ideal Home: The Legacy of Pop Art. As I have mentioned, the Hayward Gallery, where I saw Pop Art Revisited in 1969 and the retrospective on Caulfield in 1999, exactly thirty years later had opened its doors to Opie in 1994. More recently, Marco Livingstone, the leading expert in the field included him in his critical review of Pop Art as "a continuing history".
Clear line, pop, and also more demotic things, more from everyday life: traffic signs, signage in general - including airport signs - the graphic language of video games and animated films like Toy Story, stereotypes from modern illustration and advertising, illustration and advertising that Opie, as a good "post-pop" artist, likes to parody, to simulate..
Opie City, the city of the painter of modern life: an urban landscape in the background, before which are arranged his characters, architecture, a scene that owes not a little to De Chirico, 21st-century version, and we know that Opie reveres the author of the Piazze d'Italia. From his first city, that he revealed in Imagine you are walking, his 1993 show at London's Hayward Gallery, inspired by his walks around the East End, and with which he began his figurative period and his return to painting - presaged by some very interesting paintings in 1991, representations in comic-book style of some of his neo-minimalist pieces - the people were missing.
This city suddenly animated using a computer programme, a tool Opie would use frequently from now on.
Architectures, their units: "the farm", "the castle", "the church", "the bungalow", "the factory", "the office block", everything as in our childhood games, and Mary Horlock points out that amongst his sources when he began to do buildings, is a German miniature railway. Architectures, reduced to their minimum expression: a path from minimalism to the works I have just mentioned and then to his sculptures of modern buildings, for example those portrayed in You see an office building (1996), or My brother's office (1997). His cars, immobile, turned into blocks
The Opie road, the Opie highway. Roadscapes, with a large dose of the driving video games he likes so much. Daytime visions, night time visions in M40 (1993). Also from 1993: the series Imagine you are driving, or the road, seen from the driver's seat - a precedent exists in the work of the American pop artist Allan d'Arcangelo - based on photographs he took himself. Some of these photographs have been published: see, for example, the margins of quite a few pages in the catalogue for his retrospective at the Hayward Gallery where we find not only visions of roads but also of cities, airports and railways and even the London Underground and its carriages. When Imagine you are driving formed part of the above mentioned show at the Hayward Gallery Opie added a sculpture inspired by Scalextric racetracks.
The Opie skies, the Opie fields. In order to evoke them in passing - this exhibition, Fernando Frances assures me, is quite the opposite. One hundred per cent urban - an image that is true as well as idyllic, sophisticated and artificial suffices me. For example, insects children church bells (1999), a village, presumably Swiss, standing amid green fields with its belltower, so Francis Jammes, so poetic... Autobiography is sometimes mixed in: his aunt's sheep, his grandfather's grave... Everyday zoology: the squirrel and other animals that have disappeared, the goat and other hungry animals...
Landscape seen from a car. On the Road painting, to cite Jack Kerouac's famous title and one of our adolescent heroes. Titles as commentaries, evoking the sounds that accompany a placid landscape. For example: cowbells tractor silence
Surrounded by landscape and silence, the Opie airport. For example: wind planes silence (2000), competing with Fischli & Weiss's more conceptual, colder and unfriendly airport. Just as Brian Eno has his Music for Airports, just as I myself once wrote an "Airport Poem" inspired by the panels at Vienna Airport, Opie has his Airport Paintings: a modern invitation to travel in this, our post-Baudelaire time.
The Opie sea, that sea (more Fleurs du mal: "Homme libre, toujours tu cheriras la mer!") which ripples gently in his electronic landscapes, that sea plied by ships with their lights, "ships that pass in the night", William Shakespeare, but also The Shooting Star. Opie, always with his unmistakable graphic style, new wine in old bottles, the eternal mystery of the sea, the melancholy of deserted northern beaches, a stereotype once more but true, as true as the grey water in a London canal or the Arve in Geneva, as true as his glass panels with fish, which turn the front of an American museum into a giant fishbowl.
Opie's characters, his figures. In a world until then silent and in some way metaphysical, a world which began with the paintings in 1991 and is documented in the retrospective at the Hayward Gallery - and in which, as we can prove by looking through the catalogue, there is not a single figure - schematic figures, their faces reduced to a circle, first made their appearance in the 1990s. Since then, the presence of figures in Opie's paintings has gone "in crescendo". The exhibition at CAC Malaga revolves around the figure. At first, these were, we should stress once more, schematic representations. Then, from 1998 onwards his first productions in this genre, Ellen, arts administrator, and Paul, teacher, date back to this year - these figures became specific characters, individuals from the artist's immediate environment.
The portraits become multiplied "ad infinitum", mostly reduced merely to the head, though there are also full-body renditions, outstandingly the nudes and figures in the process of becoming naked, not forgetting the bathers. A fascinating community, as real as life itself, in which Marco the student or Virginia the housewife or Bruce the dancer are friends of Fiona the artist (in whom we recognise Fiona Rae, a fellow artist and friend of Opie's), or of Monique the Businesswoman - Housewife or Tina the programmer or Alex the model or Hugues the investor or Paul the baby (brilliantly reduced, in one version, to the simple line, in black and white); in which the guitarist (spectacular 2006 works: Steve plays guitar, and the series on Bryan Adams), the youth icon by antonomasia from the 60s on, drags us all in with his energetic riff; in which even the famous doll Barbie has a place; in which Kate the model (in whom we recognise Kate Moss), Maho the gallery director, Mark the writer and Stephanie the insurance broker share a wall; in which the exterior of Tate Britain is the temporary home for monumental effigies - almost like leaders from some people's democracy in Central Europe or the Far East - for Gary the pop star, Dino the gallery owner, Bernadette the student, Keith the mechanic, Walter the publisher, Elena the schoolgirl... The particular and the universal. Playing within this frame, this field, Opie achieves unique status for himself. The book which to date best reflects his peculiar gaze with regard to the human face is Portraits (Codax, 2002). This large volume, with its superb, deliberately neutral, monotonous, accumulative design, enables the reader to note both what distinguishes each character and how the Opie style turns them practically into logos, into parts of a whole. To analyse this style we should focus not only on the graphics, such an important element for him, but also on his delicate, sophisticated use of colour: highly nuanced, absolutely unmistakable plain colours: oranges, reds, pearl pinks, sky blues, ochres, greys, greens, yellows, and always with the black of his drawing, framing them..
At first, Opie's way of representing the human figure was inspired by traffic signs, by signage, by schematic representations. Gradually though these figures become more and more personalised. Kate is Kate Moss and the members of Blur are the members of Blur and Bryan is Bryan Adams and each and every one of his subjects is someone Opie has dealings with. Dino, Bijou, Kiera, Gary with his beads and his sunglasses, the Opie aficionado, the fan of his work, becomes familiar with all these characters, re-encountering them here and there. We should like to know more about the life of jmb, graphic designer (2002), a title which reads just this way, all in lower case, suggesting perhaps that the designer in question, the subject of a portrait featuring enormous economy of means, might be from somewhere in Central Europe (Switzerland?). Opie the portrait artist is situated in the frame between the person and the personal, on the one hand taking into account these schematic representations and on the other working with the computer on digital photographs he himself takes of his subjects.
Particularly fascinating are Opie's women, whether housewives, businesswomen, secretaries, employees, schoolgirls, students, collectors, writers, philosophers, masseurs, or Sara dancing, or the model Bijou slowly taking off her clothes in the animation Bijou gets undressed (2003). Baudelaire, once more, and his immortal theory of the "passante", with Paris as the backdrop, that "passante" who, decades later, would give rise to some of the finest urban scenes by Bonnard or Toulouse-Lautrec. Opie's "passantes" are electric, more ephemeral even than real: one strolls languidly across the LED (light-emitting diode) panel, one blinks on the plasma screen, whilst another's earrings shine as it shakes to the movement of her head. "Passantes", we might add, that wear the most varied clothing - bright red plastic raincoats, printed silk blouses, lingerie - which is of particular concern to this painter, who knows, Baudelaire as always, the importance of such ephemeral art.
People (2000). Opie's people, his great family. The crowd, in painting or in poetry, the feel of the great city, Poe's The Man of the Crowd, precisely his Baudelairian reading in Le peintre de la vie moderne, the city of Jules Laforgue - artistically paraphrased by Caulfield, by the way, in 1973, in a fantastic album of silkscreens - and so on and so forth, towards the tentacular cities, towards the time of the avant-gardes, towards the electric Montparnasse night filmed by Eugen Deslaw, towards the Multitudes (Crowds) of Spain's own Antonio Saura. The crowd and in it, isolated, specific figures, in Opie. For example: This is Kiera, Julian and Christine walking. With regard to his highly characteristic figures walking or taking off their clothes, the result of a long working process in which drawing also plays a role, Melitta Kliege appropriately mentions Muybridge's 19th-century picture sequences, studies of movement.
As he approaches his fiftieth birthday, Opie really does seem to us the painter of our modern life, a life in which the real and the virtual, the artificial and the authentic, feelings and logos are all mixed. As the painter that, in days to come, we will mostly identify with our time. The painter whose emblematic and omnipresent images, often accompanied by his own texts, many of them travel notes, we will remember - and our children will remember: he is nearly our age but they, strangely enough, see him more as one of their own - as we remember, when we think about the 60s, those of Roy Lichtenstein, those of Patrick Caulfield, those of Alex Katz and those of Andy Warhol - these last two also masters of the portrait - and those of the French Haitian artist Herve Telemaque, or those of the aforementioned Equipo Cronica... When much of recent Spanish figurative art takes that direction - we remember, for example, the Valencian artist Manuel Saez, or the Galician Vicente Blanco's proposals, some animated, and also highly Tintinesque, though in a different way - and when concomitances between his work and that of artists in neighbouring Portugal, such as Jose Lourenaco, this show at CAC Malaga, sponsored by a Valencian savings bank, Bancaja, whose collection includes several Opies, could hardly be more timely.
I end this piece, in the early hours once more, and once again at the Mency in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in one of my favourite temporary homes just recently. Once again, soon after I stop writing, the screensaver with the Formula One race track and drivers starts up in the dark ultramarine blue, who gradually begins to clear, whilst above can be heard the sound of propellers and - just like one of Opie's plasma screens, though we could also be inside a flight simulation programme, a subject I am told he is also interested in - the position lights of the first flight out of Los Rodeos flash, the lights of a small propeller-driven airplane, that's right, a Binter or Islas flight, carrying Tintin, Hiroshige... and several characters from Opie, including "the pilot", "the hostess", "the businessman", "the business secretary", "the tourist", and one cannot help but remember one of Opie's installations, dated 2000, is entitled, simply, Tourist...
A small propeller-driven airplane taking off from one island to another, an airport; I said it just a few lines ago about my own "Airport Poem": a modern invitation to the journey. "This is... Julian Opie!"