Julian Opie


Stop for a moment on any street and watch the passing crowd. There is a beauty and energy in the striding figures. Each person wrapped in their own purpose, dressed in their own way, combining with strangers to create a constantly changing, random dance.

I have drawn people walking in various parts of my town and in towns in various other countries. Busy, city workers on a lunch break, fashionable shoppers strolling with labeled carrier bags, hot people in flip flops and bundled, cold northerners.

Hung with these paintings is one of a series of new LCD animated paintings. These works depict London pedestrians filmed on the street with all the accidents and surprises that reality offers. In stark black and white it is the movement that defines the individuals. There is no narrative, only random flow.

The brightly coloured cut plastic surface of the paintings is as sign-like and urban as the LCD panels. Modern modes of display are used for traditional artistic purposes of painting and sculpture.

To draw people on the street I simply set up the camera and keep it open. The next task is to process this information. To single out the person, the frozen moment in their stride that would make the best picture, the best representation of them as an object. I spend days singling out the right moment and person to draw. I feel like a fisherman who inspects the net and plucks out the best catch. Once drawn and titled these become part of my language, words that can make sentences, notes that can make a tune. I will use any one drawing in a number of ways, it is mine. The process was like a trap, a careful setting up of mirrors to capture a flashing moment of accident and beauty and single it out and hold it where it can be seen and studied and perhaps enjoyed. Each stage of the trap is one I have arrived at through trial and error, from observation and learning. Each step is a kind of drawing in itself and each layer takes the subject further from the confusion of dancing lights towards something you can see. Some of the steps are simple to describe, the framing and recording device of a photograph. The importing of that onto a computer screen. Other stages are more complex and instinctive. I apply a kind of translation of the photographed figure into a language I have developed based on signs and symbols, shadows and outlines. It’s perhaps a tracing that my mind does naturally, running a line along the perceived edge of things describing the form of something. It’s the most direct and one of the most ancient forms of describing using eye and hand and tool, a single line of concentration and focus so that your hand moves with your eye as it understands an object. Next comes a stage of colouring in and collage and trial and error as different elements are highlighted or dumped. I am always aiming for the minimum that tells the maximum. One curve in the hair to describe the way it moves and falls, one colour that sums up a dress. It’s at this stage that I nearly give up and often have to scrabble to new solutions and rules to get the drawing to work. Once I pass this stage I feel a sense not of satisfaction or completion but more of the ability to move on. The drawing now exists as a proposal, a stored possibility, a hummed note. At this point it meets another river of information, the river of materials and noticed forms of display.

None of these works are strictly portraits but there is a focus on bodies, on looking at people and using strangers as models. We live as bodies in space, as animals and we are always conscious of the other people around us. Through looking at them and building their images I see myself and can engage in the shared space we inhabit.

Julian Opie