Julian Opie and the ingenious deconstruction of the image of the other
Julian Opie has been a permanent feature of the British and international art scene for twenty-seven years. He is undoubtedly one of the most familiar figures in the landscape of contemporary art and this can be explained in various ways, but there is one reason that outweighs all the others, one forceful factor in every exhibition that justifies this longevity. The visual identity of all his works is immediate, the impact is direct and the images he makes play skilfully with the idea of stripping down, of reducing to the essential, making a loud and clear declaration of a tempered post-minimal aesthetics that still retains its power of attraction. Julian Opie originally became known for his presentation of objects in strongly ambiguous versions that lay somewhere between sculpture and painting, as if he were initially hesitant in deciding which genre he was going to work with. But in the nineties his undeniable talent led him to opt for a proximity to graphic art that has become legendary, together with his declared passion for Japanese prints and mangas and, above all, his virtually pioneering appropriation of computer tools with which to portray any kind of image and extract its essential structure. In general, the emphasis is on the use of line, the spirit of which, although borrowed from Pop Art, asserts itself paradoxically as a personal signature. As a result, the viewer recognises the Opie hallmark almost instinctively. His environments, ranging from wall to object, assert their occupation of space while jealously retaining their evident, organic two-dimensionality, and they are as likely to be animated as to stay silent. As usual, the artist ceaselessly takes over a whole host of familiar things (architecture, human beings, animals and landscapes), which he portrays with the aid of the computer, offering representations that at first sight seem schematic. The distancing brought about by this formal simplification transforms these empirical data into mere signs with which Opie raises questions about the conditions in which images are received and understood.
And what could be more paradoxical in its synthesising apprehension than this obsession with the portrait in Julian Opie’s art? It is undeniably the classic form of this kind of representation that inspires his passion, and he himself is an inveterate collector of old paintings, which he hunts out in junk shops. When one sees his treasures one realises that what interests him is not necessarily an appreciation of value but the constant strangeness that the portrait strives to perpetuate in its permanent history. In other words, the power of interpretation and all that lies beyond the transcription to a work of art in order to transcend a person’s outer appearance, whatever the degree of realism that may be employed. A sine qua non that the definition of the portrait, inevitably visual, must incorporate is the resurgence of the inner personality of the model by means of indications. Moreover, Opie never dispenses with the system of sittings and does all that he can to preserve the physiognomic aspect. However, he knows that we have moved on from the age of the advertisement to the era of publicity, that henceforth nothing will ever be explicit and instead there will be a constant vying on a subliminal level. The most important question in the art of the portrait is to succeed in going beyond the simultaneity that the eye imposes and to establish a sequential order, rather like in literature, where the portrait is not a representation or a description but an evocation. Whether the model is a real or fictitious person should not be of any importance in absolute terms, but one of the procedures that the artist uses is to reveal the person’s first name in the title, even indicating the gesture or action performed, to make it easier to understand that it is really a question of observation in order to capture the model’s personality. The portrayal of a fictitious character calls for a different kind of imaginative precision, but not completeness, and in any case all fiction is based on previous observation of real models.
The genre of the portrait evidences a particular interest in the other. Except that the other is always oneself. What the portraitist renders is not merely a human being – a society woman, businessman, actress, colleague, etc. With his synthesising art Julian Opie excels in drawing out an idea of general application from the individual, and that is his great achievement: his manner encourages a reduction and concentration of means and marks, but the portrait is not reduced to that. What is important is the constant adaptation to the spirit of the time, which is the strong point of his works, and the use of a symbolic physiognomy that has a generic value, rather than the specific features of the person who appears on any of the supports that he so skilfully presents. What it probably comes down to in the end is not exclusively a question of a portrait but of the ideas of the age, of an aesthetic ideal and generic typologies that function more like a socio-artistic database.
The portrait is, as I said, the image of the other, but in it the artist’s self holds sway. And in it, at the same time, in a process of total convergence, he undoubtedly represents himself. Although the model is at hand, the artist is more dependent on himself than on other people. Indeed, this is clearly stated in one of the splendid essays that Julian Opie has written (“Twenty Six Portraits, 2009).* The other is, at the same time, a mirror of oneself that does away with the drawback of the reversed image or the psychological difficulty of becoming over-interested; it is a way in which one can see more impartially, providing a testimony of the interest that one takes in others and in oneself, which is a very contemporary trait. But whether the portrait that one makes is of oneself or someone else, it always indicates that one attributes importance to the philosophical idea of “being-there” (the Dasein of German existentialism), to essence in its individuation and to the personal identity that, once again, is expressed doubly in Julian Opie’s work, in his adoption of this genre and, at the same time, in his stylistic and artistic choices.
We are aware, nowadays, that the painted portrait has long since been ousted by the photographic portrait. The latter has often been accused of being incapable of going beyond the reproduction of appearances, and therefore of being merely a portrait deprived of the transfiguring force and power of revelation of an essential interiority that lies beyond physical appearance.
In his way, Julian Opie practises all the sub-genres of the portrait: official portraits – official, intimate or erotic – commissioned by rich collectors of this world laid bare, pictures of intellectuals and celebrities from artistic circles, the social portrait, the documentary portrait, the “scientific” portrait, the family portrait (especially portraits including children), the self-portrait, the group portrait and the fictitious portrait, as if it were a question of revisiting history in order to renew the social usage of the portrait now that it has been demeaned by the omnipresence and intense democratisation of the photograph. Yet he avoids venturing upon a contest that would be lost in advance, for he is clearly the initiator of a radically different approach. Shrewdly he has chosen to situate himself in the register of the reworked, filtered, clarified image, in an evident eagerness to adapt, using the instruments and codes established in the present age by the mass consumption society, by the sophistication of marketing levers, especially by advertising, and by a form of graphic art tempered just as highly as if it were twelve-tone or serial music. In an age where the photographic portrait has acquired a function as a social instrument for the purpose of identification, optical recognition of faces and automatic scanning of crowds in demonstrations or on the terraces of stadiums, Julian Opie’s procedure is not to be considered solely as an aesthetic approach but also as a subliminal warning that reveals the surreptitious shift of the idea of the portrait from the private sphere, from its aura of intimacy, towards a transformation of its symbolic modalities: instead of emphasising highly charged moments of social time, the portrait now yields to intense use by commercial interests or the police. Indeed, in its way, Julian Opie’s work reminds us of how the portrait’s erratic and supremely existential temporal scansion, its status as an eminently “instantaneous” intimate visual journal, has progressively been replaced by a perpetual “pose”. At the same time, these portraits produce a more relaxed relationship with the presentation of an image of our subjective identity. In any case, the besottedness with our “trivial image” which Baudelaire deplored now seems so deeply rooted in our social and individual existence that our predilection for the portrait in any genre is definitely in no danger of extinction. This also undoubtedly explains the undeniable attraction of this British artist’s work.
Another explanation for this lasting success might be the fact that the portrait has become a “common” practice for the art world. The way in which Julian Opie presents it, in “still” or animated versions, the diversity of the supports and the question of their size, their spatial and serial aspects, all go to show that art is still incomparably capable of doing things differently, and that artistic ability is not a pretension but a skill, along the same lines as the “painterly” portrait of the past but using the tools of the present.
Like Roland Barthes in his time, Julian Opie has understood that the image has forms by which it conveys meaning and produces reality, that the truth is not transmitted by moving from the object to the image but that the process works in reverse, that lessons can be learned by leading from the image to the object. “Since the truth is inseparable from the procedure that establishes it” (Gilles Deleuze), one must understand the procedures that he uses to lead from the image to the object. The image has ceased to be a machine for seeing with; as a result of the visual devices that have been developed – lines, areas of colour, vanishing points, sharpness, transparency, cropping, montage, the use of profiles, silhouettes, shadow play, surreptitious animation, the idea of movement as digital recording – it requires a symbolic dimension and aesthetic that place it in the domain of allegory. In other words, the image is no longer concerned with sameness but with similarity, it escapes from univocal mechanical repetition to turn the idea of recurrence into a Platonic idea, moving from the duplication of something to something other than the thing. Thus it plays with the idea of the double rather than the twin, with ambiguity as difference, with fiction as latency, with what is inherent in figuration. The mechanism of allegory consists in duplicating texts or images with other ones, reading them through other ones and adding a meaning or replacing one meaning with another, introducing a supplement of meaning by addition or replacement. Unlike the ideal of fidelity that we are familiar with in historical canons, here the artist introduces an appreciable element of mockery, he is fond of confusing the identity of things and referents, he reverses hierarchies and thus produces a real questioning of traditional values, making Julian Opie a contemporary par excellence.
In this anchoring of history in the present, the artist has been and still is one of the pioneers of the image presented as a global entity. The myriads of images that now populate the surface of screens with their smooth, superficial, cold appearance are summed up in his work in a condensed manner and telescoped like an idea that acquires value through the series, the transfer from one element to another, the geometrical linearity of outlines and smoothness of surfaces. There is also the omnipresence of digitalisation as a standard practice, the standard of the present age, the functioning of which makes it possible to refine an image to such a point that it all becomes an assembly of refashioned elements. But Julian Opie skilfully associates his images with these technologies, the digitalisation of the image or the technology of illuminated LED panels. It is with these virtual means that he can best render the echo and flow of a dismembered, dispersed reality and revive its references and memory, its sensory experience and representation. What he offers us, in the end, is a lively celebration of the eternal citizen that we are, the citizen of the world confronted with the power of media images, seeking to escape from them by slipping through the mirror, for the boundless, infinite dimension of the reflection seems to transcend this world, and the artifice that corresponds to it indicates consummate art and ingenious construction.