Julian Opie: Totems of Everyday Life, 2023

Text by Valentino Catricalà written on the occasion of Julian Opie's 2023 solo exhibition at Valentina Bonomo Gallery, Rome. 

A totem is a symbol or object that represents a particular group of people, such as a family, clan, or tribe. It can be an animal, plant, or natural element that is believed to have special significance and power. The totem serves as a reminder of the group’s shared identity, values, and beliefs, and often has spiritual or mystical associations. In some cultures, the totem is believed to have a protective or guiding role, and individuals may have a personal totem that represents their individual identity or life path.

When I walked into Julian Opie’s studio I was surrounded by Totems. There were masks, totem poles, skulls, ancient objects he collects. In that moment, I finally realized that Julian Opie’s work is based on creating Totems. But not the Totems I have just mentioned that serve as an inspiration for the artist, he actually creates Totems of our everyday life; Julian Opie is a shaman with the power to creates icons that can represent our contemporary culture.

Julian Opie (British contemporary artist born in 1958), is known for his distinctive style of creating portraits and figures using minimal lines and basic colours. Opie studied at Goldsmiths College in London and emerged as a key figure in the British art scene in the 1980s. In an era in which capitalism was filling all our visible worlds with signs, Julian started to create stylized depictions of animals, cars and building, and then, walking figures. These are typically stylized depictions of human figures walking in profile, often with simplified features such as black outlines and solid coloured shapes. The figures are often depicted with minimal details, such as missing facial features or feet, but are easily identifiable as human forms.

Opie’s walking figures are inspired by the signs and symbols of everyday life, such as street signs and pictograms, and they often reference the language of advertising and design. They can be found in a variety of media, including sculpture, painting, and digital animation. Opie has stated that he is drawn to the walking figure as a universal symbol of movement and progression, and that his simplified style allows the viewer to focus on the idea of movement rather than on the individuality of the figures themselves. His walking figures have become iconic and have been featured in many public installations and exhibitions around the world.

When we look at the walking figures in an exhibition space we suddenly realize that they inhabit the space, they don’t just stand in a space. They have an architectural attitude within the exhibition space, as we can see in the show at Valentina Bonomo’s Gallery. They create movement, they orient our actions, they create a new relationship with the architecture. This architectural approach was evident already in 1993 in Opie’s major show at the Hayward Gallery in London. Opie’s approach to architecture involves simplifying and abstracting buildings and spaces, creating clean and minimalistic designs that focus on basic shapes and forms. Furthermore, he has worked on a number of architectural projects. His approach to architecture is rooted in his interest in the relationship between people and the built environment, and his work often challenges viewers to question their assumptions about the nature of space and form.

The architectural approach is well evident when the artist engages new media, as he is doing with Virtual Reality works. Opie’s use of new media allows him to create artworks that are highly interactive and engaging for viewers, augmenting the relationship between the space, the viewer and the work. Living the space means inviting the viewer to participate in the creation of the artwork, not only in a direct way, but in a deeper way, orienting our movement opening a reflection on our contemporary society.

This is what we find in Valentina Bonomo’s exhibition. When we enter into the Gallery we see a new way to inhabit the exhibition space, the walking figures interact with us orienting our action. We are oriented by a reflection on our contemporary society, understanding what are the images that today represent our new contemporary Icons, namely what is reshaping our new group’s shared identity, values, and beliefs, understanding what are our spiritual or mystical associations, in one world, the Totems of our society.

May 11, 2023