Dominic Murphy: Seeing is Believing
for Guardian Online
Artist Julian Opie believes "public art" should mean more than prosaic local authority-commissioned sculptures of shopping bags outside malls. Dominic Murphy meets a man determined to bring his work to the people
Some people relish a stroll round an art gallery, but there are many others who loathe the idea and would rather eat their coats. So what if the work is taken out of this potentially intimidating environment and placed in the street or on the side of a building? Would more people be receptive to it?
It's a question Julian Opie has been pondering recently, as he put together three new public installations which are all launched this month. "People are very suspicious once they know something is art," says the 44-year-old artist. "I wanted to defuse that moment of suspicion so that people are given the chance to enter the work visually before worrying about whether it is art or whether they are supposed to like it."
So, with one of his new pieces, we are treated to a giant landscape covering the entire west wing of St Bart's hospital, London - not the first place you think of as a venue to see some art. And despite the size of this work, you still end up stumbling across it, tucked away in a square at the centre of a rambling collection of buildings. The surprise, however, is punctured by the blandness of the subject - a computer-graphic representation of a B-road in Hertfordshire - and the lame, neutral way it has been coloured in.
Opie's images consist of reality reduced to outlines, and strong yet flat colours where nuances have been swept away. It's a world of universal signage where landscapes evoke those catch-all instructions on children's toys and flat-pack furniture, and figures look like cardboard cut-out or the male and female silhouettes on toilet doors.
He begins by scanning a photograph of his subject into a computer, then draws the outline he wants. This can be output in a number of ways, depending on what Opie wants the finished result to be. He's collaborated with road sign manufacturers (to create, among other things, his animal sculptures outside Tate Modern) and has recently been working with a company in Sweden, emailing them his finished image which is then translated on to vinyl.
His two other new works - one up the road from St Bart's, in the foyer and facade of Sadler's Wells Theatre; the other at the front of the new Selfridges department store in Manchester - have been created this way. In the former, Opie depicts swimming figures and stretches of water in lengths of wallpaper; in the latter, it's lines of people walking past one another.
This adult master of the stick figure was, as a child, actually very good at drawing. He had a middle class upbringing in London, the son of a schoolteacher mother and an economist father (Roger Opie, who presented the Money Programme in the 1970s). By the time he was 14, Opie tells me, he would be painting every night, stretching his own canvasses and thinking how he could improve on a work in progress. "People said I should go to art school," he says, "which I thought was for losers." Encouraged by his mother, though, he attended Chelsea art college and then, in 1979, Goldsmith's, where his tutors included Richard Wentworth and Michael Craig-Martin.
He graduated with a first, but in the early 1980s there was not much of a culture of going on to become a professional artist (Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume et al would not reach Goldsmith's until later in the decade, and the arts-bashing Thatcher administration was in its heyday). "The idea was you'd get a studio for the first 10 years or so, go travelling, maybe do an MA." But, typically, art-swot Opie got his head down straight away and within a year had an exhibition at the Lisson Gallery, in Marylebone, with whom he still works today.
Moving out of the gallery and into a public space, he says, has its risks. After all, Sadler's Wells foyer, where theatre-goers have their interval ice-creams, hardly has the industry prestige of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art (he's also exhibiting there, from February 20). But this comes from someone who, like Andy Warhol, has never shied away from themes of mass production and commercialisation. In 2000, he produced the artwork for the hugely promoted Best of Blur CD. And for his last show at the Lisson, Opie designed the catalogue to look like a freebie product brochure you pick up somewhere like B&Q.
He's either a gambler or he doesn't really care.