London

Julian Opie

Hayward Gallery

Imagine you are climbing, 1992, is a tall white-painted, wooden arrangement of shelves. The invitation to ascend, as in much of Julian Opie’s work, is an injunction to look rather than to take direct action. You can look, too, down the avenues that separate the elements of the 1991 modular works but, unlike Bruce Nauman’s corridor, they are too narrow to allow passage. The space occupied by the work is no more physically accessible than that of the earlier glass-and-screen wall-partition boxes, which can be seen into but not entered. However much Opie’s work seems, in Michael Newman’s words, to “mourn Modernism,” it retains a wide-eyed quality, almost an ingenuousness, in the face of contemporary urban existence. The shelf, column and modular works from 1991 display this openly, adopting as their titles the sort of “facts” that can be culled from children’s encyclopedias, such as In order to cut glass it is necessary to score a line one molecule deep or The average speed of a car in London is slower than that of equestrian traffic at the turn of the century.

This comprehensive but uncluttered survey covered Opie’s work over the past decade, from the early brash, oversize tools and commodities in painted sheet metal, through the contrastingly bland, surrogate ventilation ducts and freezer cabinets, to the highly varied images and objects of recent years. Everywhere there is evidence of a fascination with the qualities of life in a constructed environment. Opie presents the full mix—sculptures; sculptures that look like commercial or domestic fittings; sculptures that look like paintings; paintings; paintings that look like drawings; drawings; computer images; models. . . . Some of these things are gargantuan and others lilliputian. The models—of road circuits, fortifications, houses—are scaled-down, but too large to be played with. One sees them not as toys but, like the rest of Opie’s output, as prototypes of the many ways of apprehending reality we adopt in order to deal with its contradictions and complexities.

Recent titles are generic, referring to a kind of imagery that is realized in two or three different ways. Screensaver II, 1993, is a looped computer simulation showing a driver’s-eye-view down a three-lane motorway. The image definition is crude: large areas of flat color construct a featureless piece of road. We are back with Tony Smith on his drive down the New Jersey turnpike, but we’re also in the virtual reality spaces of modern amusement arcades. The paintings of the same name really are paintings although they look like enlarged hard-copy printouts of computer-screen images. In addition, there are the eponymous sculptures, more or less complex configurations reminiscent of toy racetracks, but not truly toy-like in that the prefabricated units from which they are composed are cast in concrete. Likewise, Screensaver I, 1993, is a slow track between the blank walls of a computer-generated rectilinear cityscape. This time the paintings are huge and done straight on the wall. Geometrical abstractions in shades of white and blue/gray they dwarf their spectators, cramming them into the nowhere space of electronic circuitry. None of the modes in which these works exist is more real than the others. They circle around experiences that are pervasive, routine, unremarkable, and, because of that, defining.

Michael Archer