INTERVIEW: Julian Opie

Superstar British artist chats NFTs, art degrees and his new London exhibition

This email newsletter was sent to subscribers on 30 June 2021

Happy hump day!

I have a HUGELY exciting interview for you this week, by one of my favourite British artists. Julian Opie’s bold, simple style has become recognised around the world, and he’s just opened a brand new exhibition at one of London’s best historic venues. What more could you ask for?! He’s an art icon and so I’m delighted he was happy to speak to me (and you) about it all. Read on for the interview: it’s worth it for his answer about NFTs alone.

A thank you goes to The C Word: The Conservators’ Podcast who this week have taken out a classified ad (see it at the end of this edition) after sponsoring a recent issue. Ads and sponsorship all help me continue to put this newsletter together - and keep it free. If you’d like to support me, just reply to this email for more details.

Let’s get reading!

Love art, museums and galleries? Then my newsletter is for you, keeping you up-to-date on what to read - and what to see. Subscribe below (it’s free!)


What’s heating up and cooling down in the world of museums, art and galleries this week:

going up

You can’t move for new podcasts by England’s national museums at the moment. The Science Museum have recruited BBC Radio 5 Live’s Nihal Arthanayake to present a series on the stories of ordinary objects. Conflict of Interest by Imperial War Museums features famous faces such Carey Mulligan and Rick Edwards discussing recent conflicts. Jane Garvey presents a new series from National Museums Liverpool. And the Natural History Museum launch ten-part series Wild Crimes tomorrow. Phew. Your ears will be busy!

going down

World Heritage Sites seem to be under unprecedented threat. UNESCO, ahead of the world heritage committee meeting in China next month, is flexing its (minor) muscles and is threatening to add a number of sites to its ‘in danger list’ including Stonehenge in the UK, the city of Venice in Italy, and the historic centre of Budapest. It’s already recommended that Liverpool’s waterfront lose its status as a heritage site, because of plans for a massive new Everton FC stadium. Well done everyone.


My curated list of what’s new to see, do, watch, read and more.

Paula Rego at Tate Britain
The UK's largest and most comprehensive retrospective of the revolutionary artist to date. Over 100 works will be on show, in the city that Rego has lived in and called home for most of her life. A must see. Opens 7 July

Boudica: the woman behind the myth at the British Museum
This online panel discussion explores the story, myth and impact of Boudica - who led a fierce British revolt against Roman occupation - with reference to objects from across the Museum's collection and the current exhibition Nero: the man behind the myth. 1 July

Arts Work
Want to work in the arts but don’t know what to do or how to get in? This podcast from Sadler’s Wells offers conversations with people under 40 who are killing it in the worlds of dance, theatre, museums and more. They discuss the variety of roles that exist and how you could find your way in. Budding museum buffs should start with the episode with Adam Koszary, social media manager for the RA.


NFTs? I can’t be bothered to learn about them

Julian Opie is one of Britain’s biggest - and most distinctive - artists. With public commissions from Seoul to New York, Luxembourg to Zurich and a steady flow of large museum exhibitions internationally, his work is known throughout the world. His portraits which reduce subjects to essential lines and color planes are instantly recognizable, and were famously used on the cover of Blur’s 2000 greatest hits album. You know an Opie when you see one.

His new exhibition at the wonderful Pitzhanger Manor and Gallery in west London opened last week. In it, Opie recreates a French village landscape alongside other trademark works such as walking figures. It’s his first exhibition in a London public gallery in four years. It’s also the first time Pitzhanger has had a show bleed out into the outside grounds, including the tranquil Walpole Park at the rear of the Manor.

Here I speak to Opie about the new show, his advice for graduating art students, and the hot new trend (or not!) of NFTs.


Tell me about your new exhibition at Pitzhanger. What do you want visitors to leave feeling and thinking?

For the first part, this is an exhibition of a group of recent projects mixing works based on architecture, animals and people. Subject matter is often read first but underlying the different subjects there is also a range of materials and manufacturing processes, investigations into colour and composition, ways of seeing and navigating an artwork.

Any exhibition is a possibility of getting some recent works out of the studio and on show but more than that I have tried to create a cogent journey and story that starts out in the front garden of Pitzhanger Manor, leads you through the two galleries, past the shop (also populated) and finally out into Walpole Park behind the manor house.

I have placed the works in a way to mimic the kind of museum displays you might expect from a historical museum, statues on plinths, large panoramic paintings in the background. The sky-lit spaces of the museum and the classical facade of the manor seemed to suggest this type of presentation. In order to navigate the statues, I hope the audience will wander as in a garden or in the Egyptian gallery at the British Museum, catching different and dynamic views across and through the various works, making their own compositions and connections. By contrast in the second space, I have turned this logic on its head and - instead of looking at a painting - I ask the viewer to physically walk into the painting and navigate the perspective depth themselves, as in a three-dimensional computer game.

Unlike musicians and performers I don’t get to meet my audience. I can only intuit who they might be and how they might react. I can set up a series of possible views and encounters and hope that the works I have made look their best.

This is your first solo exhibition in a London public gallery in four years - do you approach public exhibitions differently to commercial ones?

That is true though I have been making both commercial gallery and museum exhibitions around the world in the intervening years. A museum show allows you to spread out physically as the spaces are often more generous. I also feel free to create on-site, temporary works reaching a scale that might not be possible in smaller commercial spaces. There is a greater breadth of audience in a public space often reaching out into the areas outside the gallery where you encounter the public on a different basis altogether.

When working with a public institution it’s a one-off relationship as opposed the long-term collaboration with a commercial gallery. I come in, get to know the people and the space and make a monumental effort to arrive at a perfect exhibition. By contrast, with a commercial gallery show we have an ongoing story that plays out over the years and behind the scenes, with sales, art fairs and commissions.

Visitors will see the South of France referenced in this show - why? And have you missed being able to travel as much during the pandemic?

I think if I was left on a desert island, I would soon be making exhibitions using coconuts and sand. I use what is around me preferring personal experience over learned or secondary information. I don’t really plan to make works; they seem to creep up on me. I will notice something in the world around me, make some connection, draw or photograph it, store it away and keep it in mind. I collect art myself and this also provides a rich source of reference and ideas. I have always found that travelling through the world, turning the world into an unfolding panoramic story is an inspiring process. Views from a car window or train fill my exhibitions. Holidays where I am less busy seem to be times when I notice things and can see ways of using certain environments. I often spend the summer in South West France, and I began to notice the particularity of the villages there. The way the streets with their joined-up houses make these kinds of tunnels, and the different colours of the walls and shutters create a rich pattern. Without fully knowing where it would lead me but bearing in mind more abstract architectural works I had made in the 1990s, I set about photographing all the facades in our local village and found a way to draw them on the computer. These 100 or so drawings were then pasted onto a 3D computer model of the village and a virtual camera was sent down the streets on a random algorithm to send back a stream of images.

This kind of travelling has of course been tricky over the last while. I have been able to make a couple of exhibitions in person but others I had to do via mobile phones and Zoom calls which is of course very unsatisfactory. I did however explore the streets around my studio, walking and running. I noticed and then used the cast iron railings and gates of the city of London and these influenced the colours and materials of some of the works in the show. I also focused more than ever on the old towers to be found in the City, the architecture of Wren and Hawksmoor. A group of works based on these is the next project.

There are digital aspects to a number of the physical works in the exhibition. But have you thought about getting into the digital-only world of NFTs?

I don’t understand these and can’t be bothered to learn about them. They don’t on the face of it sound any more interesting than discussions on discounts, but I could be wrong.

You graduated from Goldsmiths nearly 40 years ago. What's your advice to artists who'll be graduating this summer?

I feel for young people navigating their education and early careers right now. It’s a hard-enough journey as it is without the added confusion, uncertainly and limitations they face. I also feel thwarted in terms of places and things I want to see in the world.

However, everyone faces a particular situation unique to their generation and there is no way to fully predict the correct steps to be taken. There is luck and intuition, energy and intelligence and a certain degree of disobedience all necessary, I think.

My first piece of advice to anyone wanting to make art full time is to go to art school. Not just to learn from teachers but to be in a scared dynamic environment and work with others, to argue and compete and share ideas. When leaving art school there is the chance to continue to work together and bounce ideas and experiences. This was essential to me.

You have previously mentioned your work being influenced by the urban environment and computer games, but also ancient civilizations and traditional art history. What aspects of art history or ancient objects have had the greatest impact on you?

I will be making an exhibition later in the year that places some of my own works next to the artworks that I have collected, both ancient and contemporary. So, I hope that may answer your question.

Art is a shared language and an amazing rich resource that allows us to understand the world and ourselves, in fact allows us to see and navigate the world. Some histories and periods and individuals are clearer and more useful to me and maybe making my own works is a way of thinking that through, of joining in the discussion.

You have public artworks all over the world. But which city would be your dream commission?

When I was younger it was all “New York”, “Cologne”, “Tokyo”, “Paris” but thankfully I think that has shifted. There is still a sense of a limited art world, but the balance has shifted away from specific centres to a wider, flatter spread which suits me fine. Any audience is relevant anywhere and each new venture and location is exciting, from a cruise ship to a museum in Thailand.

I have recently been experimenting with larger works, a pair of 12-meter standing figures in Valencia for instance, and I would like to pursue this. Inspired by the great Egyptian statues of the past I’d like to see what large scale can do to the process of looking at an artwork. However, placing works into the shared public space is a delicate matter, like playing a loud radio on the beach it may not be welcome and this is one of the challenges of public art - to get that balance right.

Book tickets to Julian Opie at Pitzhanger Manor here. Until 24 October 2021.

and finally

National Museums Liverpool has had an “energetic” rebrand as it seeks to unite seven venues and attempt to renew its focus. Design Week takes a look at the (very purple) new identity.

Love art, museums and galleries? Then my newsletter is for you, keeping you up-to-date on what to read - and what to see. Subscribe below (it’s free!)


Ever wondered what it’s like being a conservator looking after ancient artefacts and curious collections? Then you should listen to The C Word: The Conservators’ Podcast! Pull on a pair of nitrile gloves and let Jenny and Kloe show you their world.

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