Worth A Look: Julian Opie / by Graham Dew

Paul Running, Julian Opie

Paul Running, Julian Opie

Last Saturday was a bit of a treat; a reunion in London with old friends and before that, an opportunity to catch some exhibitions. I was keen to see David Hockney’s latest works involving photography and painting, the multi-layered images of Idris Khan, and the latest work of Julian Opie.

It was only a couple of days before my London visit that I became aware of the Julian Opie show at the Alan Cristea Gallery in Cork Street. Jonathon Jones had written a glowing five star review in a near-full page review in the Guardian, which was enough to tempt me to an earlier train to get to the exhibition on time. Jones was right on the money; Opie is a genius and this is an unmissable show. It is hugely enjoyable, fun, clever and thought provoking. His work, if you are not already familiar with it, is characterised by extreme simplification of subjects, thick bold outlines and highly economical blocks of posterised colour. You could dismiss them as cartoons, but it is the accuracy of the retained features and nuance of gesture in his subjects that makes his work true art. The images are unashamedly modern in style and execution, but pay homage to past masters. The stop-motion horses of Muybridge, Renoir’s Les Parapluies and Hiroshige’s landscapes are acknowledged in a 21st century interpretation.

Opie proves his interest in our ways of seeing by using all sorts of technologies, most notably the use of motion lenticular printing. I remember getting my first lenticular postcard as a child; it was a promotion for 2001: A Space Odyssey and being fascinated by apparent depth of the diorama in the card. Opie turns this novelty into artistic expression by exploiting the ability of this technology to show short motion clips. Walk around the image and the subject walks in place. Rotund figures plod through their frame, others stride purposefully along. In other pictures boats bob on unseen waves, carp glide past each other and butterflies float on the breeze. It is a Harry Potter world in which pictures come to life. I half expected to have a Pete and Dud moment where ‘the eyes follow you around the room’.

The nature of Opie’s work means that the craft of the art happens in the design, inside the computer. The physical realisation of the art is a technical manufacturing process. Here fine art becomes as reproducible as photography; an art of its age. The prints are as smooth as photographs; the galloping horses are machine cut from brilliant blocks of acrylic. Lenticular prints are subcontracted out to a company that might be producing advertising material after creating Opie’s artworks. Alan Cristea has set up an online shop to sell affordable Opie products; lenticular postcards, flip books, mugs, catalogues. This begs the question, is this affordable art or is this merchandising? And secondly, in today’s world, does this matter?