Stripping, or The Pragmatisim of Julian Opie
[I want to] strip things down, to look at them for what they really are ...
Julian Opie [i]
For a solo exhibition in 2001 Julian Opie devised a catalogue that resembled a hardware store brochure.[ii] Stapled, with thin cheap paper and production values that fell very short of what is expected at the high end of the art world, it asserted itself as being more useful than beautiful. It was a play on the references Opie was then making in his work to functional objects, to architecture, furniture, hardware and so on, combining images of new and recent multiples with text that indicated a range of variations available, of different sizes and colours with corresponding prices. It could not have been more transparent with respect to the business of making and selling art.
The 2001 catalogue is typical of the artist. That is to say his exhibitions have often been accompanied by publications that seem to come from somewhere else. With a wry knowingness he has produced children's books, glossy magazines, postcard sets, photograph albums, newspapers and trade calendars, all at once celebrations and critiques of convention. What made the 2001 catalogue remarkable was its explicit challenge to the art world, and the art market in particular, a place where opacity reigns.
The art world, in fact, capitalises on mystery. This is possible especially due to the indefinable nature of its commodity. For a long time now we've acknowledged that art does not have a distinct look or material quality - art objects do not have an intrinsic artiness - or need to have an artist's touch. An art object doesn't have to be well made or a 'good' thing. Art can lie in absence. Art doesn't have to be an object, and visual art doesn't even have to be visual. Above all, and pertinent here, is the fact that a work of art doesn't have to be unique.
There is nothing inherent in art that makes it different to anything else. Opie readily assumes this and enjoys speculating on the kind of observations that an extraterrestrial alien would make on arrival in our world, encountering for the first time the multifarious products of the visual culture in which we are now steeped and which we usually take for granted. Any discrimination we might make between high art and popular culture, including signage, advertising and so on, would elude the alien. In an art world that accommodates Jeff Koons, through museum retrospectives and acquisitions, he or she would have no understanding of the hierarchy that builds up from kitsch to those revered products of human ingenuity we call masterpieces. What exactly is the problem with fakes? Why does a painting lose millions of pounds of value when it is discovered not to be by Rembrandt but one of his honest followers? The alien would deduce that human beings for some reason were spinning a story around something fugitive called art, and that art would be worthy of anthropological research rather than aesthetic enquiry.
In this vein, it should not be a surprise that Julian Opie identifies strongly with the world view of Richard Dawkins, the arch-atheist who regards any form of superstition and any idea of transcendental reality as sloppy thinking. Like Opie, Dawkins wants to strip things down to what makes sense in terms of science. Whatever can't be observed or proved remains in a vast realm of future discoveries, not to be accounted for through leaps of faith. He sees nothing virtuous in faith, and encourages us to not only accept that we live in the midst of known and unknown unknowns, but also to appreciate what we encounter here and now, rather than defer our happiness until some imaginary afterlife. Dawkins is positivist and positive, asserting that what we know is easily wonderful enough and that we should have no need to invent a god or gods in order to enhance the quality of human existence.
Dawkins's The Selfish Gene had a strong impact on Opie in the 1980s, not so much as a Damascene experience but more as a book that chimed in well with thoughts that were already, essentially, informing his artistic practice. Its stringent logic in particular, developing from Darwin's Theory of Evolution, corresponded to the philosophical scepticism with which Opie was navigating in a post-modern world. He was deploying strategies derived from Pop and Dada whilst avoiding the gratuitous complexity that often occurred in the work of his peers, hence his rhetorical question: "Why look for obfuscation or mystery when what you face is infinitely extraordinary, just as it is?" His was and still is an inclusive position, very curious about what is real, and careful to distance himself from contemporary art sophism.
The conventions of the art world, like those of religion, grow up around the nothingness that art is - a void we seem to need - and could not be more at odds with the freedom that art has to offer, precisely because of its nothingness. The tendency to treat art objects like holy relics, valuable because they are imbued somehow with the presence of an artist/saint, is at the heart of the problem, and so museums have the attraction of churches and temples, and curators function like priests. Art works are sold, like indulgences, with the promise of a better future. Opie's grasp of the nature of this bastardisation of art is sure, as is often exemplified by work which comprises a kind of dare. In fact, the audacity of his practice as a whole, in all its pragmatism, is what makes it compelling and important right now.
Opie's no-nonsense attitude, incidentally, should not be confused with the 'no noodles' minimalism of (albeit great) 20th century artists and architects. Opie is not dogmatic in the same way, insisting on some universalist, abstract, all-too-often humourless, aesthetic regime. On the contrary, he is playfully smart as he takes his propositions to their logical conclusions - as 'a follows b, follows c ...' - arriving at choices that affect not only the style, medium, subject matter and installation of his work, but also the invitation cards, catalogues, labelling and other bits and pieces that attend the business of revealing art.
Opie's mock hardware store brochure is a case in point, recasting the question begged by the work it illustrates - what exactly is the difference between hardware and art? - a question that remains as unanswered as it is still apposite today. But art objects continue to be bought and sold as luxury items, and not available off-the-shelf in some out-of-town superstore. Like Warhol, Rauschenberg, Oldenburg et al before him, Opie makes it easy for us to imagine how it might be otherwise but is not pushing for a revolution in the art market. Rather, to reiterate, he is encouraging us to "strip things down, to look at them for what they really are", and repudiate the bad faith that pervades our creative industry.
It is a nice fact in the light of such consideration that Opie's recent wall-mounted works, resembling paintings at first glance, are actually made of (unpainted) vinyl on wooden stretchers. They are unique in the sense that only one can be bought but, in theory at least, could be replicated ad infinitum. The artist likes the idea of an after-sales service whereby an identical (unique) copy can be made to replace a work by him in the event of damage. If, for example, a commissioned family portrait was the serious casualty of boisterous children at home, it needn't bear scars for life. And minor spills could be wiped clean from its resilient surface. Thus there are practical advantages arising out of owning an Opie that can be couched in terms used to promote hardware. And like hardware, much work by this artist can be manufactured in quantity. It makes sense that portraits are usually one-offs, as they have personal significance for those commissioning them, but more generic imagery in Opie's style lends itself perfectly to multiple production.
It must be stressed however that Opie himself does not start out on his artistic journeys with thoughts of durability and maintenance at the forefront of his mind: "Discussions about endless multiples as opposed to a unique work should be seen in the light of trying to make the right decision for the thing that you [want to make] ... whether or not it is wipe cleanable, whether or not it looks like it will disintegrate. There's nothing wrong with an art work that disintegrates in five years. Who cares? It's got nothing to do with its being good or bad. It might be bad for a collector, but nothing to do with its being good or bad as a work of art." Opie insists that the idea for a work of art comes first, "what it would be like to look at, for me - primarily for me - and then, by extension, for an audience. All the rest is a follow up." In other words, his decisions concerning materials, edition size, related publications et cetera occur as consequences of a fundamental proposition, or first principle, affected by the context within which he is working.
Opie's pragmatism and straightforward logic are refreshing. They have a frisson within an art world that revels in obscurantism - and thus imply transgression - suiting the formal simplicity of his work that has nothing to do with naivete, but rather betraying an impatience with superfluity. But then again, less is more. His images of strippers and other undressed and/or undressing female figures provide an obvious analogy for a practice that has been sharpened up to strip things down, but at the same time they give rise to semiotic complexity. How do we read these signs of shamelessly unladylike behaviour? And, once the artist has decided to realise them as art - with all the attendant (logical) difficulty of that decision - why do they become multiples?
For Bijou gets undressed 1-8, a series of eight screenprints, Opie depicts a young woman with characteristic economy. Her shape is defined clearly by a bold black line. Her head is a circle that hovers above her good, square shoulders, with no neck in between. Her hands have no fingers. Her legs end in a stylisation of high-heeled shoes, and so there are no feet to speak of. Her navel and nipples are revealed to be dots. It is as if she has been stamped out by a machine made for the production of basic motifs, recognisable at a distance and devoid of fine detail.
The artist speaks of his desire to create movement through a sequence of still images and so, in the same way we see movement in films, we see Bijou getting undressed. But there is more to it than that. Bijou is performing striptease, with different outfits, and so we see her arrested physical positions required to remove a pair of jeans, a crop top, a slip, a dress, knickers and so on, but always with a demeanour that indicates her awareness of being watched. Her body and head are oriented towards us. The way her arms are lifted, with hands behind her head, so that her breasts are more pert; the way she places one leg in front of the other, to accentuate her slender curves; the way she plays with the waistband of her knickers; these are self-consciously sexy gestures that conform to a particular performance tradition.
Kiera gets undressed and Sara gets undressed are lenticular panels, in editions of 25, that feature similar figures, static, with articles of clothing that disappear through the movement of the viewer in relation to them. Their derivation from saucy seaside postcards seems clear. Shahnoza, on the other hand, is a subject that occurs in a variety of media, including lenticular panels, silkscreen prints and black nylon flock ("on panels with flocking adhesive screenprinted on to 3mm white Plexiglass acrylic ... separately presented in sprayed matt black aluminium frames specified by the artist"). The screenprints are especially interesting, not only because of the pole-dancing they represent - developing and codifying further the kind of action we saw in Bijou gets undressed - but also because of their correspondence with a series of wall drawings made by Opie in 2006 for an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Comprising larger-than-life-size images of Shahnoza, it was an imposing backdrop for the gallery's permanent installation of Henry Moore sculptures, and so figures, in various states of undress, wrought by one of the most highly regarded artists of the twentieth century were foiled by a striptease artist. The Moores are substantial figures. They sit on plinths while Shahnoza slinks around the room striking seductive poses in two dimensions. The profound, portentous meaning embodied by the sculptures could not be more unlike the presumed mindlessness of the dancer. Moore's images have had an assured place in art history for some time, whereas we are more likely to find Shahnoza in a 'gentleman's club'.
Incongruous combinations of this sort occur often in Opie's work. Like a hardware store brochure amidst the monographs on the coffee table of a rich collector, Shahnoza hits a jarring note in an august museum setting - though endorsed, of course, by the museum - and we respond to the dramatic tension that ensues. Without expectations to be foiled, Opie's alien again would be automatically accepting, unable also this time to discriminate between the ethics of Shahnoza's profession and the allegorical respectability of Moore's figures. And, in more ways than one, the striptease artist is as much an abstraction of all-too-human projection, a nude (eventually), rather than a naked individual. Is Shahnoza her real name? She is faceless and consists merely of an outline that could be filled in with fantasy; a bit like art, after all.
Like Bijou, Shahnoza is a rejoinder to an artistic genre. She is Opie's kind of nude in the same way that his landscapes and still-lifes are faithful - in their fashion - to the pictorial formulas for landscapes and still lifes that we find in our cultural mainstream. Opie is not suggesting, like Oscar Wilde, that our perceptions in general are shaped by artistic invention, but rather that art feeds on art: "... [My picture making] is a self-conscious circular type of activity ... I make art looking at other art, looking at other things in the world that look like art, making things that look like art, making things that look like things that look like art. ... and I assume that other people have a similar kind of complex, wrapped-up, spiralling, layered view of things." In this respect, art has to be conservative, recognisable within its own institution, existing - without the benefit of tangible definition - through tacit consensual agreement. In other words, it's a cultural tradition, like striptease, and Opie could be taking the words out of Shahnoza's mouth when he says about his role as an artist, "I'm a professional. It's a job." He is testing the art world, not to undermine it, but to demonstrate at once its flaws and an extraordinary carte blanche.
Art is in many respects a known unknown, there to enjoy if not completely to be understood, and Opie recycles some of it. His stance could not be less academic than that of post-modern appropriationists, borne as it is out of an impulse to convey an enthusiasm for what is "infinitely extraordinary, just as it is", in art as much as everything else. His strong interest in Ukiyo-e is very relevant to this point, and furthermore strengthens the argument for him as a pragmatist.
Without any understanding of art as we know it, Japanese woodblock prints from the 18th and early19th centuries were made by studios of artisans who worked painstakingly from drawings by renowned masters. Not meant for exhibition, they were collected by a wide range of people for the same price as a few bowls of rice. They could be pasted onto the walls of domestic interiors, or passed around from hand to hand, or, as legends of impressionism have it, be used as wrapping paper. They were made in unlimited editions that stopped when either there was no more demand or when the blocks wore out.
There are different genres within Ukiyo-e that roughly match those in western art, including landscape and portraiture, the latter often depicting women who are historical equivalents of Bijou and Shahnoza. Opie decided to follow this line when commissioned in 2006 to make his Ruth portraits. She was a collector, happy for him to draw her in any way he pleased. He explains: "I am a fan of Kitagawa Utamaro, a brilliant Ukiyo-e artist ... His models were radically cropped close up, the faces were very simply drawn, in some ways always very similar, but with great presence and individuality. They appeared very graceful, often caught in some mundane action, brushing hair, reading a letter, smoking. They are aware of the viewer perhaps but they remain enclosed, wrapped up. I needed a model who smoked so that I could make a series of films where animated smoke trailed upwards from the smoker's cigarette. Ruth smoked ..."[iii]
In the five screenprint editions we see Ruth, half length and always smoking, variously posed in outfits that are slightly revealing, either with or without a bra. Once we make the connection, the portraits inevitably carry with them the idea of Utamaro, not only through style and subject matter, but also through the artist's working practice. The same applies to the Japanese landscapes (2009), for which Opie took his cue from Utagawa Hiroshige, an incomparable draughtsman who in turn owed much to Hokusai. The horizontal format, the cropping, the colour gradation and the strips of calligraphy; all these point out Opie's aspiration to the condition of transparency, rather than a slavish following in the footsteps of others.
And what exactly are we looking at? Work by a 21st century artist, with a studio and digital technology at his disposal, who has taken inspiration from cultural artefacts that, for one reason or another, appeal to him. He identifies with their aesthetic - their stripped-down flatness, conducive to reproduction - and lack of preciousness that probably owes much to the fact that they were made without any reference to an artistic paradigm. Hiroshige and Utamaro were as inquisitive as they were accomplished, sympathetic yet amused by pretension and in no doubt about the smallness of human achievement within bigger world pictures. Easily, if they were with us today, we imagine them making art in the same spirit as Julian Opie.
[i] All artist quotes are extracts from an unpublished interview with the author, 26 March 2011
[ii] Julian Opie, Lisson Gallery, London, 10 June - 13 July, 2001
[iii] Julian Opie, on Ruth with cigarette 1-5, This publication, p.130-135