Julian Opie: Collected Works
Art Quarterly Magazine
The Holburne Museum, Bath
22 May to 14 September 2014
It's only fairly recently that I noticed that it was possible to actually buy artworks that I really liked and admired.
I collect other artists' works mainly because I really like them but also when they seem to offer me a clue as to how to go about making my own work or simply when I see a reflection of my current interests.
In my own work I move from one idea to another quite instinctively without a destination or overall narrative in mind. I follow that which sparks my interest, I make whatever seems suddenly possible with the tools I have to hand, tools of understanding as much as techniques of making. Sometimes I see possibilities in the world around me and sometimes I see them already processed in other art. Art, in museums and galleries, in books and on the internet is itself part of the surrounding world, part of nature.
Like most people I don't look at any one art work for very long. Despite what my family claims, I move at a fair pace though exhibitions, art fairs and collections. If I like a show I usually reverse and look at everything again. Living with an art work it's the same but endlessly repeated. Each time I notice the work I am again completely engaged and excited by it. Because it's not a process, like a film or book or piece of music, I don't become bored of looking at it, unless it was a boring art work to begin with. In this way it's possible to own a film, a book or piece of music without buying it or keeping it, simply by consuming it. Art seems different to me. Owning it allows repeated viewing.
When I see something I can draw I feel a connection and a strong desire to use it and have it. In a way I feel it is mine already because I can see it and value it. This extends to art works. As soon as I see a work that I feel I understand, that I can engage in, that is in some sense beautiful, I want to obtain it and put it somewhere that I can look at it repeatedly to further engage and understand. Now, after some years of collecting other artists' works, I know some of the areas and people I am most interested in. Like art making itself, collecting reminds me of prospecting. Some perceived sparkle makes you start to dig and then a seam can be followed. Noticing how incredibly alive are some of the so called Fayum portraits from Roman period Egypt has led me into that period of portraiture and then further back into older Egyptian periods. A chance encounter and purchase of a "school of Godfrey Kneller" oval portrait opened up the whole 17th and 18th Century history of portraiture for me. The painting caught my eye due to its powerful purposefulness and sense of being an object as much as the fact that it was an oval portrait and I was myself making oval portraits at the time.
I first noticed people as possible things to draw when standing at railway stations and seeing rows of people on the opposite platform. Seen flattened out and from a distance I could imagine a way to draw them. I see echoes of this flattening out of people into lists or friezes in ancient Assyrian stone panels and Egyptian tomb paintings. Roman and Greek carved and painted scenes also use this trick. Many individual people seen flat-on create a pattern and a movement and a kind of story. A frieze highlights the sameness of people but also their differences. An image becomes a process, even a place as you move yourself around the same space that the figures inhabit.
The oval school of Kneller was pretty cheap and obscure but when I started to investigate where this picture that really excited me had come from I began to discover a world of art parallel to but quite separate from the contemporary art world. I have always loved wandering around museums and knew the big names of the period. In a loose way I was aware of Reynolds and Van Dyke, had enjoyed their paintings and saw them as perhaps exceptions to my general sense of not finding English art very exciting. Then I started looking at Godfrey Kneller and Peter Lely, Cornelius Johnson and Thomas Hudson. The list of artists kept growing as I found one who taught another or competed with another. Each of these artists were distinctive and yet had a lot in common. As the decades of the 17th and 18th Century rolled by different artists and different styles appeared. I began to understand the period in a way I had never done, dates falling into place, regents and wars and disasters and inventions and then artists in nearby countries. Not just Rubens and Velasqueth as outstanding genius artists but numerous brilliant, exciting artists I had never heard of, describing a whole world, evoking a whole scene.
The portraits that I make are not really paintings though they sometimes look like paintings, they mimic paintings, perhaps they are sculptures of paintings, models of paintings or stand-ins. I hope they have a powerful connection to reality, an ability to evoke reality. We know the visual world largely through observation. An art work is an object that observes that process, that intercedes and bridges worlds and yet must exist within the reality it discusses.
Anyway I found it hard to resist obtaining every art work that I found that seemed to vibrate with a sense of connection and presence, jumping from one artist to the next, moving from early 17th C to late 18th C . When compared to daily needs some of these things are rather expensive but seen as a process of swapping, my art work for someone else's, it makes more sense.
Old Masters take you to very different venues than contemporary art. Maastricht instead of Basle art fairs, Philip Mould Gallery instead of White Cube Gallery, The National Portrait instead of The Hayward Gallery. I go to both of course and I buy or swap contemporary work too but I must admit the past few years I often feel more at home in the former. When discussing frightening medieval medical practices one of my children said that people used to be so stupid and I often come across bemusement from fellow art worlders as to why I would be interested in this old stuff. The old stuff is often afforded great admiration but little relevance. It's tempting to see the present as special but it's also exciting to realise that the past was once today. The art of different periods brings those worlds parallel for me. Looking for hard to find old master paintings I tried an Old Master art fair in Maastricht. The trouble here is that there is a limited supply, the art is no longer being produced, only found or passed on. Contemporary art fairs are often places where you can quickly and conveniently find a lot of new things of varying interest. With Old Masters the art fairs tend to show the galleries' most expensive and well known works, few discoveries or surprises. This was true until I turned a corner and went down the Ancient Art gallery section. 300 years ago the world was very different but as a Londoner I don’t feel so very far from Bunyon and Daniel Defoe buried in Bunhill Fields just next to my studio. Artworks from 2000 years ago however fill me with awe and excitement. A sense of time travel is involved. For the first time I felt I could get some real if dim sense of a completely other world, the ancient world, the beginning of civilisation rather than our period. I don't know what our period is but it’s not the beginning. I bought a small, crouching marble Aphrodite and set about learning more about the whole period moving from Roman statuary and portraiture to Tanagra Greek figurines and on to all things Egyptian.
It's really hard to find things from this far off time and quite rightly nearly all of the great things are in museums. Peter Lely owned a full scale version of the little Aphrodite I have, The Lely Venus in the British Museum, he also owned over 20 Van Dyke paintings, but it's not a competition.
Looking at other artists work gives me clues in terms of materials, composition, subject matter, colour, everything really but it also reflects what my interests are, makes me feel connected, gives me confidence. When I am painting the 3D heads that require hand painting I feel some nervousness as to my abilities. I look at a late Egyptian plaster head I own that has retained its painted surface and imagine someone 2000 years ago picking up a paint brush and knowing what he was doing and doing it. (I assume it was a man - there are exceptions.) Artists now don't really know what they are doing and have to invent or find this sense of obviousness and purpose for themselves.
I don't only refer to old masters in these senses, it works the other way around. Making art is in part a conversation with people about whom you can make certain assumptions of sameness. I assume my viewer is living in the same world as I am, that their picture of themselves and their surroundings is built of much the same material as mine. What art looks like, what we think we are going to see in galleries and museums, what images we have already seen, has great bearing on how we see new art In part we see what we know - what we see is structured and defined by what we know and a lot of that is to do with art from the past. If I hang an image of a face on a wall in a white room with spot lights and a ticket collector outside I am making a lot of assumptions and connections before we even start to look at the actual qualities of the work. I have always aimed to make my work with all that in mind, with all that as part of its meaning and premise. If I make something that looks a bit like an 18th Century painting or reminds you of an information screen in an airport it’s because I meant it to. This is a juggling act and requires great skill and practice. The ancient Egyptian could paint that stark black eyebrow onto the white face with casual purpose so I should feel able to do the same.
I don't have enough walls to hang all the things I have bought. Sometimes I buy something and don't hang it for ages, this does not seem to matter, after the heated frenzy of having found and caught the work there is a following sense of calm. I quietly look forward to having it on view with anticipation, a treat to look forward to. I was dubious about making this exhibition, there are some dangers in comparing your work to work you admire especially from the past where a sense of judgement and quality control has settled. Group shows are often a very refreshing way to see your own work though it can pull you up short but in this case everyone is in the same boat of the present day. I argued earlier that it's all the same old or new but the old has become part of the world, part of us, we are made of it, the new has to go through that process for better or worse. That said I have found it, so far, surprisingly exciting to put together this show. I have used much the same methods to compose this exhibition as any other. I have used my own, available, stored works as a resource and the walls of my home and studio as another resource. I have drawn it out on a plan and tried to make sense and variation and connection within the possibilities of the architecture and context. What is different is to do it with other people's work and to treat my own work as an historical resource (rather than show the latest things I have made as I usually do).