A group of female runners complete with all the typical paraphernalia – caps, earphones, water bottle, Nike swooshes on their trainers – are caught in mid-flight and their features reduced down to cartoon-like images and colour. It’s classic Julian Opie. Running Women represents an everyday occurrence, distilled down and given a new dynamic by becoming an amalgamation of different moving figures.
Opie does the same thing with Walkers in Melbourne, based on photographs of people taken both in the city and on the beach. (He has his first solo exhibition in Australia there later this year). He has described it as a kind of fashion parade. This time, the figures appear on a frieze, reminiscent of those classical friezes in which warriors graced the sides of temples and so on. They are moving pieces frozen on a frieze so to speak. Opie has also created statuettes of similar walking figures.
All form part of a new exhibition of mostly new works at the Alan Cristea Gallery that has been publishing his editions for more than 20 years. Opie takes traditional genres and gives them the 21st century treatment. Nowhere is this more clear than in his landscapes of the Cornish coast, a favourite part of the country for him. Typical is Gribbin Head, a series of four digital prints mounted on glass. They represent beautiful scenes which he has digitised from photos, manipulated and minimalised to create an impression of harmony and tranquility that he has experienced. As he puts it, “a view of a view”.
Julian Opie has used the same process in a series of nylon banners offering dyed images worked from photographs taken on a train trip from Seoul to Busan in South Korea. This time, there’s a sense of speed reflected in the paddy fields, mountains and rivers that flashed by on his journey. A knowledge and respect for art history permeates the show, and his decision to print the images on translucent banners rather than on canvas is a nod to his love of Japanese silk-screen prints.
In complete contrast to the rural idyll are the cityscapes embodied in a set of five sculptures entitled Modern Towers. Spray-painted on wood with a smooth, plastic-like finish, the works are geometrically-lined impressions of skyscrapers that shimmer in the reflections of the sky and from the shadows of adjacent towers. They are not based on actual buildings but the nature of the rectangles reminded me of London’s Canary Wharf. He has drawn similar rectangular shapes for Office Windows, sets of screenprints. Opie’s work is very much based in realism, not with detail but with a sense of mood and memory.
In a change of media, the exhibition features four LED animations of crows going about their business of pecking, turning, walking and excreting. They are a reminder of his wonderful galloping horse installation at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
And in another example of Opie’s extraordinary versatility, he has made impressionistic portraits of heads cast in metal – bronze and anodized aluminium – laser cut them and inserted them into engraved stone. It’s another nod to classicism and he has given them individual names like student, academic, shopkeeper and secretary.
His east London studio is close to Bunhill Fields, an old London cemetery where Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan are buried. The massed stone tombs there, he has said, suggests another crowded London. And it’s crowds of people, going about their everyday business that fascinates him and provide the means by which Opie can play with and re-present in a revitalised, contemporary form. At the same time, he is inspired by high art and this curious combination makes Opie’s work so fascinating.
Julian Opie is showing at Alan Cristea Gallery, 43 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5JG until 16 June 2018.
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.