In his seminal article on the relationship between artists and artisans in the postindustrial era, John Roberts wrote; ” The artist is no longer beholden to actually physically produce work at all, indeed, in moving from the artisanal to the machino-technical, the artist is able to devolve the work to others, perhaps submitting plans or ideas to specialist technicians for them to execute, or working in collaboration with other artists and technicians as part of an extended division of labour (as in the printing of photographs)”. – John Roberts, Art After Deskilling (2010)
Julian Opie rose to public prominence after being commissioned to design an album cover for the greatest hits collection of 90’s Britpop band, Blur. Since then, his trademark digitally generated images have continued to tread the ambiguous path between fine art and graphic design.
Opie’s working method invariably begins with a photograph as its starting point. Using computer software, the artist simplifies his image into its constituent shapes – which often assume the form of black outlines filled in with blocks of untextured colour. The result is logo-esque in its effect: Opie makes no attempt to portray his subject in a photo realistic manner. His canvasses are intended to be flat, his images generic and his work stylized. His art very seldom gives much more information than is necessary to identify its subject as human, plant, building, or animal.
Like many successful contemporary artists who are required to produce large volumes of work for commissions and exhibitions, Opie has neither the time nor the luxury to craft his art himself. Thus, the process of translating his ideas into a physical form, is outsourced.
The artist once described this approach to the manufacture of his art as follows: “What I find … is that other people can [make the work] perfectly well and it frees me up and allows me a position further back which is more like the puppeteer … What I do is control very carefully every element and aspect of what it is that I want to make. The fact that I’m doing it on the computer doesn’t mean that it’s hands off. Physically my hands don’t touch the material that you are standing in front of. They might – they might not. They might if I washed it, which I often do, but they don’t in terms of putting the plastic sheet on. That’s a process that can be managed.”
Walking through the exhibition as a viewer, it is difficult not to escape the sense that Opie project managed a very well coordinated production line leading up to the opening of this show. The finish of the works is pristine, and emits an undeniable sense of being machine made. With the exception of the beautiful and very skillfully crafted mosaic portraits, there almost is no sign of individual human touch in any of the pieces on display. The three dimensional busts were produced by a three-dimensional scanner, and even the images on the canvasses consist of computer designed inkjet prints.
The ethics of hiring cheaper labour to produce art, only to rebrand the work under the artist’s name and resell it at a higher price, are not lost on Opie. In a subtle, yet incisive critique of the art market, Opie often insists that a pricelist be included in the exhibition catalogues of his shows, contrary to established gallery practice. The artist also freely admits that many of the fabricators who make work for him find the prices excessive, because they cannot sell their own work for as much.
Because digitally designed art is so easily replicable, many of the works in the exhibition are available in limited editions (although Opie himself doesn’t does not deem his designs to be artworks to the extent that they merely exist on the computer as digital files). Other pieces materialise on a digital canvass – such as an LED screen or a flatscreen television. The subject matter includes animated landscapes, representations of random people walking the streets of London and cartoon films of roads leading to nowhere. Souvenir-sized versions of Opie’s pieces are also available for sale at the gallery’s reception desk and via the artist’s website.
This is a well executed, stylish and entertaining exhibition but ultimately, the viewer is left with the uneasy question as to whether the reproducibility of Opie’s art is a cynical commentary on the means of production in a post-manufacturing economy such as the UK, or a necessity by-product of the commercial realities in which contemporary artists work, without the guaranteed institutional backing of a church (as in days gone past), an unpredictable and speculative art market, and increasingly the state in the age of austerity cuts.
Goldsmiths graduate, Julian Opie (b. 1958), lives and works in London. He has exhibited nationally and internationally at major institutions and galleries. The artist has also been commissioned to produce a number of public installations around the world. His influences range from the imagery of media and advertising to ‘pop’ artists such as Patrick Caulfield and Michael Craig-Martin.
Words : Carla Raffinetti Photo: @ ArtLyst 2012 *** 3 Stars
Julian Opie – Lisson Gallery, 29 Bell Street, London 11 July – 25 August 2012
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