Julian Opie

Primo Piano

This was Julian Opie’s first exhibition in Rome, and he showed one simple and yet complex piece that was made specifically for the occasion. Two columns were positioned asymmetrically, facing each other in the small gallery space. Slightly elevated above the floor (the bases weren’t visible), they rose up, almost touching the ceiling. Thus their presence acted as a geometric element of measurement of the space into which they were installed. This means that, in some way, Opie respected the basic function of the column, which symbolizes a thrust upward and at the same time usually supports a weight. Here the column did not function as a support, but the work nonetheless evoked this function visually and psychologically.

For Opie to exhibit an element like the column in Rome an element so architecturally defined—also signifies that he is connected to that territory of classicism and to that memory of ancient art that a city such as Rome expresses on its own. What I have described so far, one might call the simple part of his work. Complexity entered into the surface treatment of these columns, for the surfaces were not solid at all, but were fractured, interrupted, marked by indentations, grooves, protuberances—concave, convex, or at right angles, like sharpened edges. The first column was white; on the other column, each facet where the surface was articulated was painted a different color. The tones were very tenuous, delicate, resembling extremely light pastels, and the whole spectrum of colors—yellow, blue, green, gray, etc., and all their intermediary tones—seemed to comprise, perceptually, one single hue. The white column was continually streaked by shadows created by the illusion of movement on the surface. This movement was projected outward to the viewer, because it was impossible to glimpse the column in a single view, in one perceptual “take.” The viewer was forced to move around the sculpture, discovering, with every step the constant vibration of the surface. Thus one always had partial views, and each of these was difficult to connect with the other, because of the play of concavity and convexity, of indentation and projection. If one could have had a flat view of the column’s section—for example, a drawing of its silhouette on the floor—or a view from above, one would have seen a broken line in continuous transformation, both drawn toward and repelled by a center around which it revolved. The baroque or post-Modern connotations of this piece are evident, but not overwhelming. What is important is that, with these columns, Opie seemed to want to demonstrate the fact that a total view is impossible, that we are in some way destined to live and to act within a realm of irreducible complexity, where we can only make out partial and successive views that are mutually exclusive, a conclusion contemporary epistemology and science have also come to.

Massimo Carboni

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.