Starting in late September in downtown Indianapolis, British artist Julian Opie will be showing 11 different sculptures in "Signs," his largest-ever outdoor exhibition. The works range from small-scale pieces that look rather like road signs to a massive monument to rock star Bryan Adams; they will remain in place for a year.
Opie has been widely respected within the art world since he first emerged in the U.K. in the early 1980s, but his public standing was transformed when he designed the sleeve for the Best of Blur CD in 2000. This introduced his art to a whole new audience, and his stripped-down, cartoon-like drawing style has been widely imitated ever since.
Opie, who has undertaken many public projects, utilizes a wide range of digital technologies to produce his paintings, sculptures and video works. Most recently, elements of his video pieces were employed by U2 as part of the stage design on the band’s U.S. and European tours.
Julian, are there particular challenges to presenting public work in a city such as Indianapolis?
Compared to L.A. or New York, there is a certain kind of conservatism there, and when you’re dealing with outdoor sculpture, you’re much more prone to get into issues of this sort, because you’re not protected by a museum. You’re right out there in public.
It hasn’t been a limiting factor, but it’s certainly been a guiding factor in terms of what I show. I’m not looking to show something entirely new, or to shock or to force what I’m doing down anyone’s throat; it’s more a sort of conversation and using opportunities to draw out meanings.
Tell me about the Bryan Adams piece.
I’m really interested in monuments and their relationship to sculpture and statues—I actually made a proposal for the monument to Princess Diana in London.
And Indianapolis is full of monuments; it seems the city’s dominant visual language is made up of these quite somber and imposing monuments and memorials. So I wanted to make a monument here.
We looked at various musicians from around the area—the Jacksons and John Mellencamp—but I decided not to go specifically with someone from the area. So I ended up using some work I made around Bryan Adams, and though he’s definitely not from Indianapolis, it seemed to me that he had that FM-rock, big-open-sound, low-slung-guitar feel that was appropriate enough. It wasn’t necessary for the people of Indianapolis to feel the work was specifically relating to someone they knew. That’s not the way that art works anyway.
I remember when you first appeared on the scene back in the 1980s, you were making very different work; you were grouped with the ‘New British Sculptors.’ Then your work seemed to go through a number of radical changes and now …
… And now I seem to have settled down with [a style] that develops but doesn’t really seem to change drastically or dramatically.
Yes, but with this vocabulary drawn from signs and cartoon imagery, there seems to be an enormous range to work with.
Yes, that was my aim, to try to build myself something with which I could discuss anything, with one eye on someone like Hergé [the Belgian comics illustrator/writer and creator of Tintin], who developed a language that enabled him to talk about anything that he wanted.
I tend to use outdoor display methods and modern ideas of city signage and display. This language allows me to wander out of the museum. The works in the Indianapolis exhibition all use varying types of public-display language, so there are light-emitting diodes, there are road signs, there’s vinyl stuck on glass, there are big, backlit lightboxes that you might see an advertisement on.
There have been criticisms of your portrayals of women, who are often blatantly sexualized in your pictures and sculptures. There are lots of suggestive poses, short skirts, nudes. Your female figures are often depicted in the act of stripping, and you pay particular attention to their underwear as they do so. Can we talk a little bit about sexuality in your work?
It’s a difficult subject. It’s a huge element in human behavior, and it’s a huge element in terms of what looking is all about, especially when it comes to humans. Once I started drawing humans, my first intention was to use them as signs, symbols or memorials, that sort of thing, like stand-ins for people.
But I couldn’t manage to do a painting of a full person from head to toe. I could do faces that seemed to work, but the painting couldn’t seem to manage the whole person. It became awkward and not interesting enough; it just wasn't dynamic.
And are you saying that by starting to make the figure more obviously sexual, it made it more interesting, and enabled you to finally do full-body paintings?
What happened was I had a commission to draw Kate Moss. She came round to the studio, and while I was photographing her face, I also photographed her whole body as she was standing there. (I was too shy to ask her to take her top off or anything, which was a bit silly in hindsight, because I know now that Gary Hume got her completely naked that same week.)
So anyway, I had these photographs of her standing there in boots, a miniskirt and a top, and I drew them in the same way that I’d been drawing the previous drawings. But I found that these drawings had a completely different quality—because she was clearly posing. She was hidden by her pose.
And I suppose that that’s what people in magazines are: They’re no longer awkward, they’re no longer self-conscious, they take on a role. And although that sounds like a loss, it’s the reason why women look great in magazines: Because as long as they keep up that sense of distance or playing a role, then you can somehow deal with them visually in a different way.
If you look at the history of paintings, that’s often the case—like a woman lying in a Boucher painting. It’s no longer so important who the person in the painting is. They’ve lost a certain element of their identity, and the woman as sexual ideal has that quality, it would seem.
So suddenly I found that with these pictures of Kate Moss, I could make [full-body] paintings that had a dynamism and a power, and they related to different sorts of things than the previous paintings had done. They began to relate to older paintings from the history of art, and they related to film imagery and magazine imagery.
It seems that the more that my work sends you out in different directions, reminding you of lots of different things, the richer it becomes and the better it works. So I followed it. That’s the way I tend to work. If I see something working, I follow it.
Yes, but the criticism is that it’s only women that you portray in this sexually charged way.
The one thing that I have found is that [this type of role-playing, identity-effacing pose] doesn’t work with men. Generally men don’t have the same ability to carry off that quality. It just looks naïve and a bit silly. What I have found by chance through photographing and drawing Bryan Adams is that a guy with a guitar does work. What the hell that means, I don’t know. But a guy with a guitar seems to have the same power that the suggestion of sexuality in a woman’s pose has.
It occurs to me that a male figure wielding something, be it a guitar or a spear, is also full of art historical references.
Absolutely. The male figure with a staff. There is that male pose-making around an object, which can work. It could be a bishop’s staff or a warrior’s sword. It gives him an identity, a uniform, a protection. I have thought about the tennis racket or the fencing sword, and in preparing for Indianapolis, I did get close to looking at a basketball, which I thought might have a bit more hipness about it.
But there’s something about a guitar that’s slightly bad. I noticed that when it came to motor racing, a crash helmet had something a bit bad about it. It needs that, whereas someone with a cricket bat isn’t going to work …