Birmingham

Julian Opie

Ikon Gallery

Julian Opie is becoming the latest master of the long British tradition of landscape art. While he is popularly known at the moment for his simplified portraits of the rock group Blur, his recent show was chiefly an exploration of rural and coastal views, mediated through a sophisticated, often ironic intelligence.

Opie is an inveterate traveler: The work here attests to car trips through Holland, Switzerland, France, and Turkey as well as his native England. But he doesn't travel for the sake of leisure. There's method in his motoring: visiting family, getting to holiday destinations, installing a show in a museum or gallery abroad. While a good deal of the imagery here reflects the passing of a frequently anodyne landscape seen through the window of a caron a highway, one or two views (a Cornish beach, for example) have been specifically chosen, reached, recorded, and, as Opie's phlegmatic notes to his works make clear, imbued with autobiography.

Entering the exhibition, the viewer passed a group of sculpted city tower blocks before joining a large-scale schematic road, seen from a bird's-eye vantage, running along the walls of Ikon's first gallery, interrupted by paintings, signs, and video monitors. The road was an ordinary blacktop affair, neat, grass-edged, with a broken white line down the middle. Rounding a corner of the room, the road suddenly stopped and a painting on aluminum took over—a landscape with simple trees, fields, horizon, blue sky, like a collage of shapes cut from plain colored paper, recalling the background illustrations in a children's storybook. Human presence was suggested separately from the landscape, as freestanding, two-dimensional “sculptures” in the gallery space. The journey that had begun with tower blocks ended with the life-size standing figures of “Fabrice,” “Barbara,” “Carl”—a human outcome to the narrative of a long drive.

Sound in the upstairs galleries animated individual landscapes—lulling aromatherapy music or gentle waves on a shore. Light, too: a plane idling at dusk on a runway, with real blue lights blinking at the tip of each wing below a red warning beacon on the fin. Opie modulates the kitsch of the postcard view and returns to these landscapes their lyrical strangeness—a paradoxical outcome considering the computer-derived, simplified language in which he works. Dusk suggests the ephemerality of vision; water, the impalpability of image and light. Emotions break through. There is something here of Edward Hopper—far-off hills, rooftops, a telephone pole, the suggestion of sounds making the silence itself more conspicuous. Then, just as you were being drawn into this reflective mood, you might have looked out the gallery window onto the so-called real world and seen. with a smile, six sheep grazing under the cherry trees in the city square below, each a pair of white cutout shapes delineated on either side of an aluminum stand.

At forty-three, Opie is in full flow—old enough to know the twists and turns of his own sensibility, young enough to pull off surprises. One of his strengths is his capacity to run a particular idea to ground, to take it by the collar and pull it through permutations of visual logic, while maintaining its basis in evocative personal observation. Recycling a certain amount of imagery is inevitable, indeed desirable, if his campaign to turn all he knows into a contemporary style fit for Everyman is to succeed. This witty exhibition had, at the same time, an undercurrent of dolorous longing for a future rather than the past. Some of Opie's earlier works are titled Imagine you are driving, 1998–99—an Alice in Wonderland-like invocation to follow the artist into the emotional possibilities of his artificial world.

Richard Shone