Julian Opie has enjoyed artworld success since the early 1980s. He was still a student at Goldsmith’s when, foreshadowing the meteoric rise of Hirst & Co, he was invited to exhibit his sheet metal sculptures alongside works by Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer and Anish Kapoor at the Lisson Gallery in 1982. His one-man show at the Lisson the following year launched him into the art world as the youngest practitioner of the so-called “New British Sculpture” alongside more mature members of the Lisson stable, artists such as Richard Deacon, Bill Woodrow, Tony Cragg and Anish Kapoor.
Since then, Opie has shown throughout the world—his solo show of paintings, sculpture and films occupied both floors of the Hayward Gallery in 1993, and, although his work is familiar and influential, Opie himself has always preferred to keep a low profile (he turned down a Turner Prize nomination in 1997). One of his most recent and conspicuous projects was four portraits of the members of the pop group Blur for their “Best of” CD released last October.
Louisa Buck: From the early 80s, when you were making folded steel sculptures with their surfaces hand painted to depict domestic objects and appliances, through today’s digitally-produced portraits and landscapes, there seems to have been an underlying theme about the tension and interplay between the general and the specific, the individual and the generic.
Julian Opie: I think that this is the nature of life: you constantly have to flip back and forth from how the world deals with you in a generalised way—white male, living in East London, etc.—to how it deals with you specifically. You are completely alone on the planet and every experience is totally unexpected. I find it very intriguing that the world exists on these two levels: on the one hand everything is normal and even boring, and on the other, it is completely incredible and magical and unknown. So I am trying to describe that, I am trying to describe how I see things realistically. But how does one make something realistic? Clearly a photograph is not realistic—hold a photograph up next to you and it is nothing like you, it is just a flimsy piece of paper.
LB: With all your work, the viewer has to work hard to fill in the gaps. You prevent subjectivity from manifesting itself in the finished product.
JO: My understanding is that a work of art is not my own intense personal activity that I then reluctantly let people look at. It is more of a conversation. It is important to me that people are looking at the work because that is what the work is really about—the work itself knows that it is being looked at. It is a self- conscious object. I am asking the viewer to interact with the work. I am predicting what kind of people will look at it and what they will bring to that work. So I am assuming a certain baggage that people bring to these images and I am playing with that. But you can never entirely predict your audience; maybe they will bring something else which will be more interesting.
LB: When did you first start working with computers?
JO: A couple of works at the Hayward show  were made on a computer and then there were the films.
LB: Almost everything in the show looked as if it had been computer-generated.
JO: I was mimicking the style. I would go around and look at computer games and then draw things to look like that. In a way, it was a process very similar to early Renaissance paintings with this simplified perspective, and a lot of grey in the shadows to try and pull it out. I had been drawing like that in a certain sense anyway, but when I saw that the works were starting to look like computer games I moved in that direction. Then I made films to go with the work.
LB: Your situation in 1993 reminds me a bit of early modernist designers and architects who designed seemingly machine-honed objects and buildings which were actually painstakingly crafted out of traditional materials. But now the situation has reversed itself, with the prevalence of computer technology, the means to realise your ideas are in a perpetual state of evolution.
JO: I see myself as a follower. I observe what suddenly appears on the market. I am working in two or three different ways at a time, and the computer really helps with that, because it allows you to work all out on one style of work, and then leave it, and it does not get dusty. Then, when the mood takes me, I can work in a different way and juggle with both styles.
In the last few years this juggling with everything has become much more the way that I work. I do not actually physically make anything any more, I just juggle with stuff on the telephone and the computer. Which is almost as intense as actually making it.
LB: Is this because, in a sense, you are always designing prototypes?
JO: Yes. I have always felt a sense of competition with other forms of image-making, like advertising or design. It would infuriate me if they were allowed all of these fabulous tools and formats and the artists were forced to stick with what people viewed as their proper materials, such as bronze and found objects and oil paints.
One of the problems with making this kind of art is that you learn a skill, or you find some one who has the skill to achieve what you want, and then two months later, all that effort—which would have set you up in business if you were doing something else—is swopped for some other system. But there are some systems that I use fairly regularly—with the portraits, for example, I have honed it down to a fairly precise set of activities—and with other things, I am inventing as I go.
LB: Explain your portraiture process.
JO: Either a friend or someone I have been commissioned by comes round and I photograph them for as long as we can keep up any sense of excitement about it—usually about 15-20 minutes. I usually get them to close their eyes for one photograph so that I can make them blink later. I generally need to see people’s nostrils, so a lot of the photographs are taken from a little lower down, and I ask them not to smile. I relish people’s self-consciousness when they’re being photographed. I want them to look as if they were being painted. I take the photographs with a digital camera that I can put straight into Photoshop. I can place that into Adobe illustrator and then I draw over that with a very thin line, adjusting the line to try and find the face. At a certain point I get rid of the photograph—although I refer back to it. People often look at these works and say, “Oh, it is computer generated” as if there were a little programme that you could put the photograph through, but of course where someone’s mouth ends, where their nostrils end, all of that is where the drawing and the decision making comes in. It is all trial and error.
LB: The primary features of your portraits—eyes, noses and mouths—are simplified to the most minimal dot or dash, but the details of their hair and clothes are very distinct.
JO: I look for things that make people specific, but at the same time I look for the sense of uniform—the kind of shirt you wear and what you do with your hair defines you as much as the accidents of your birth. They put you in a certain category which you yourself have created because you feel comfortable in that.
I am more interested in the kind of identity that you see in passport photographs. In a certain sense, with all the people I draw, I want to make it as if each person were a multinational company and he has a logo and the logo is he.
LB: Is this how you approached the commission last year to design Blur’s album?
JO: I wasn’t able to use my photographs of Damon [Albarn] and Alex [James] because they wanted the way they looked seven years ago—they felt the CD had to look like Blur. So, as Blur looks floppy haired, pretty and young (even if they are now 35 and have short hair), I had to use promotional photographs, though I used my own photographs for Dave and Graham.
LB: Since the CD was released, your image of Blur has become ubiquitous.
JO: I see the CD as the actual commission. I have always thought the CD was a great object, and I love the way it circulates the world. You go down to HMV or wherever, and—especially in the ambient or techno sections—it is like a little exhibition, they are very hip, very well designed and often much better than many art galleries. There’s a freedom they have that I enjoy; artists are often so careful: “It has got to be meaningful.”
LB: You are designing your Lisson exhibition catalogue to resemble a computer magazine.
JO: Yes, I like their easy, in-your-face presentation of a lot of rather boring information, and the way that the information is presented as being as important as the objects themselves, so that the image just becomes another part of an information system rather than a stand in for the objects themselves.
I have work from the last three years in the Lisson catalogue. The exhibition presents one or two examples of what all these things can be, and then the catalogue shows the whole range. I am trying to introduce a way of buying and looking that comes from the outside world and to apply it in an area where you do not normally find it. The catalogue becomes a sculpture of a technical magazine using my own work—I am drawing these catalogues in the same way that I might draw someone’s face.
Born: 1958; 1979-82 Goldsmith’s School of Art
Currently showing: Lisson Gallery
Solo shows include: 1983: Lisson Gallery, London; 1985: ICA, London; 1991: Kunsthalle Berlin; Kohji Ogura Gallery, Tokyo; 1992: Wiener Secession, Vienna; 1993: Hayward Gallery, London; 1994: Kunstverein Hanover; Tramway, Glasgow; 1996: Lisson Gallery, London; 1999: Barbara Thumm Gallery, Berlin; Morrison Judd, London; 2000: Meymac Centre d’Art Contemporain, Abbaye St Andre, France; Alan Cristea London
Mixed shows include: 1983: “Making sculpture”’, Tate Gallery; 1985: “The British show”, Art Gallery of New South Wales and British Council (touring); 1987: Documenta 8; 1990: The British Art Show (touring); 1994: “The Institute of Cultural Anxiety”, ICA; 1997: “Material culture”, Hayward Gallery, London; 1998: Sydney Biennial; 2000: “Intelligence”, New British Art, Tate Britain
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Logo people'