Julian Opie

In his famous driving-instructor monologue, Bob Newhart was intrigued when his new pupil told him she had already been taught the two ways of stopping a car. Overcome with curiosity, he asked her about the second way. Yes, he had to admit, throwing the car into reverse is another way of stopping it.

Julian Opie may be too young to remember the joke, but he has certainly grasped the principle. He has stopped working in his old manner by contradicting as many of its previous characteristics as possible. Brushy painting has been replaced by spraying, primary colors have mutated into cosmeticized variants, and jokes about flatness have been replaced by a foray into three-dimensionality, with each element made up of separate folded units, each fold in the steel deliberately concealing the difficulty of the operation, making it seem that hardware and origami have magically, effortlessly joined forces. Gone are the cheery titles (I’m in Love, 1982, or This One Took Ages to Make, 1983). Instead there are mottos such as We’ll Be Dead Soon (Multi Coloured II), 1986. At first these seem perfunctory attempts to combine dissimilar moods. In fact, they might be the focus of the entire exercise.

Most of the titles relate to espionage or missiles, making a connection between these and that elaborate variation on ’60s American Minimalism found in new British design and architecture. Showing all the jollity of a child’s toy, Cruise (Multi Coloured IV), 1986, refers to the controversial American missile, an unpalatable weapon the British government has foisted on the public. It would be glib and literary to point out that Opie’s Cruise is also about concealment and duplicity, that it is hollow and offers no point of entry, that it is the logical move from a sculpture about telling “lies” in artistic terms—the play with flatness and depth he borrowed from Synthetic Cubism in his earlier work, for instance—to one that can deal with the concept of telling lies in the real world.

By means of a comment on the use of a style debased in the course of a shift from art to design, Opie suggests that the user is implicated in the dissemination of that style—the shift from a strict moral tone to a palatable confection—and that a return to a “pure” form of the debased version of the style placed in a gallery will prove a corrective to the international nature of “Post-Modernism,” seen as having become a right-wing force. Is this also to suggest that works of art have the same kind of currency as missiles or spies, and are exchanged in pointless, immoral diplomatic bartering? Titles such as Spies (subtitled Red I and Red II, 1986) Ceasefire (Black III), 1986, and Soviet Front (White II), 1986, are best seen as cues to the kind of argument Opie wants to join. The artists’ group Art & Language once called new British sculpture “expensive executive jewelry.” They were not referring to Opie, but the remark has been taken to heart in this new work. The problem might be that having put his car into reverse, he has indeed stopped it, and that having made a comment on the kind of exchange involved in making art as he sees it, he will have no alternative but to carry on in the same vein, making the same comment in a series of dumb, compromised styles. It would be a bleak prospect for any artist.

Stuart Morgan