Julian Opie, leading artist of New British sculpture in the 1980s, now known for his research between sculpture, communication and urban culture, talks about his experimental approach to his visual vocabulary. In particular, the discussion refers to his new series of Walking Figures, thirteen works depicting people in motion shot from the street, currently on show at the Galleria Valentina Bonomo in Rome.
Elena Giulia Rossi: Can you talk about the genesis of this new corpus of works at Valentina Bonomo’s Gallery and its relation to space?
Julian Opie: This is my fourth show at Valentina Bonomo Gallery. So, I’m very familiar with the space. It’s a beautiful gallery and a very unique opportunity for showing works. The gallery reminds me of a small chapel with its vaulted ceiling and arched walls almost making a series of discrete altars. Every potential gallery or museum or even public art project offers a very specific context within which to see and understand the work I’m making at that moment. I try to find a way to optimise the venue and make it the perfect place to show that particular group of works.
So, the long narrow corridor at Valentina Bonomo which is a tricky and tight area becomes perfect for showing a group of small wall works that depict a stretched out street scene of walking people. For the main chapel like room with its five arched alcoves I chose five new large paintings depicting individuals I had drawn and made in wood and bright paint. I imagined these to be like saints in a Baroque church. Of course after this show these works will be in a different place so it’s not a permanent solution but I thought it made sense and enhanced the overall experience. So the whole show focuses on the moving body and passing strangers on a street. Along side these issues, is a discussion on surface and colour, the recognition involved in drawing and reading of the images.
The way your visual vocabulary is orchestrated in your painting/sculptures takes into great account communication…
What I do is the result of trial and error. Of a slow process of experimentation and mix and match. I start from previous works I have made that have suggested, hinted at a further possibility. Something noticed in the last project or perhaps in the real world or in other people’s art ignites a series of possibilities that I begin to play with, to juggle and combine. I have been working with images of walking people for a long time. At first they were a variation on the posed images of standing people but once I realised I could actually make these walking people move through animation techniques I have reused the basic premise many times as single and grouped compositions. Out on the street in any town in any country is an endless supply of wonderful unique models. I have drawn people in many towns and in all different seasons and weather conditions. Each time I undertake a new project I have different feelings about what I want to focus on and as I work I find the way I draw has changed and the possibilities of building and constructing also change in response. In earlier works I drew with a thick black line filling in the various elements of clothes and bags and skin with the realistic, appropriate colours. More recently the black line has disappeared and I’m drawing each figure with just two colours. A dark and a light colour that are taken from the particular person. An item of clothing and their hair colour perhaps. Colours that at a glance could define that person. These are enough to draw with and the simplicity means I can play with different surfaces and highlight the push and pull of gloss and matte. The categories of painting and sculpture (always a key element in my work) have crumbled as the image becomes object. The background of the pictures has disappeared so that the wall becomes the canvas and in that way the whole space can become involved in the picture.
What do your walking figures expect from the audience?
I’m confused by that question. I’ll assume it’s a question about how images are read. I have spent a lot of time looking at portraiture in the widest sense of that word. The depiction of humans by humans. ( that discussion could bleed over into other animals but I leave that for now)
People have been drawing and sculpting the other humans around them since Neolithic times. I look at these images and then early civilisations through to more recent old master portraits and the signs and symbols and art works of today. Inevitably a human image acts to some degree as a mirror and as a personal introduction. The interest and fear, attraction and repulsion we feel for others, known and strangers, is transferred and evoked by images. I note in particular the difference between looking at a human who knows they are being looked at, at someone who looks back at you and the very different experience of people watching as you notice and check out passers by. The Rome show is an array of passers by. They are busy in their world and ignore the unnoticed observer. This allows a certain freedom in looking and also perhaps allows for more empathy as it avoids confrontation. I often see people mimicking the movement of the pictures. This seems like a nice very physical response.
Julian Opie, Valentina Bonomo Gallery, Rome, critic text by Valentino Catricalà, until September 15, 2023
images: (all) Julian Opie, 2023. Galleria Valentina Bonomo, installation view, ph: © Christian Rizzo