Sculpture—that most ancient and essential of art forms; a profound language with which to provision the amorphous with a recognizable form, thereby imbuing the shapeless with a degree of meaning. It is through the sculptor’s craft that so much of Antiquity (and so much since) has come down to us, offering a sense of how our ancestors viewed themselves, viewed one another, viewed the world in all its wonder.
To sculpt, throughout most of human experience, has been to immortalize in stone, clay, and marble, the ideal, the beautiful, the worthy, the magnificent. Human experience, at once ubiquitous and elusive, proves stubbornly resistant to efforts at reducing its complexity. Songs, poems, and the written word (or the drawing of sounds) are so often charged with the generational task of answering humanity’s most challenging questions, of providing the living with a sense of meaning. But where these measures fall short, as so often they do, it is to sculpture we look to embrace humanity in ways essential and true and objective.
Or, conversely, sculpture can be employed as a means by which to rock the establishment, to jar the masses, to skewer popular culture, and to offer unflinching social commentary. Such was the early-1980s (and ostensibly ongoing) effort of sculptor Julian Opie, whose association with the United Kingdom’s notorious New British Sculpture phenomenon cemented him as an, at times irreverent, artistic juggernaut.
Where sculpture is often reflexively placed in something of a “High Art” categorization, on account of the inherent intricacy of the art form and the sophistication which characterizes so many of history’s surviving works, The New British Sculpture community with which Julian Opie was so closely affiliated early in his career actively eschewed many of the form’s more polished and conventional characteristics, instead seeking to bludgeon English (read: Western) society with the blatant truths it had long labored so mightily to suppress. The requisite background for membership in this socially-conscious group appears to welcome the seemingly conventional. Take, for instance, one Julian Opie.
Born, raised, educated, and artistically-mentored in London, England, Julian Opie (b. 1958) followed a fairly straightforward path to what would ultimately become a renowned, familiar, and endlessly inventive career in modern sculpture. Julian’s sensibilities tend to lean towards a sort of scavenged or highly improvised style, which aligns aesthetically with the New British Sculpture’s unofficial (though tacitly codified) tenets. Much of material modernity finds itself appropriated within Julian’s either satirical or sentimental (difficult to discern) sculpture, which comports well with his having come of age in an age of post-WWII prosperity.
In many respects, New British Sculpture served as a not-overly-subtle rejection of Western overabundance, if not downright extravagance. What Julian’s work often channels is a dual-narrative which both acknowledges the sentiment we humans invest in/extract from our possessions and challenges us to view such things as the merely material items we know them to be.
Julian Opie Artwork
There resonates within most Julian Opie Artwork a peculiar element of non-functional utility, with many sculptures appearing to possess a certain kinetic or energizing quality to them. This element of his work again conveys the New British Sculpture movement with which Julian is inextricably linked and categorically associated. That a human form or salvaged material good can be repurposed in ways both artistically resonant and incongruously impractical tends to confront its beholders with a sense of the satirical for which Julian is (or was) almost certainly aiming.
Though sculpture, as one of the plastic arts, inhabits three dimensions by its very nature, the very best examples of the medium tend to transfer rather attractively to a two-dimensional format. Julian Opie’s work is no exception in this regard, as images of his work existing as edition prints acquit themselves quite nicely in terms of aesthetic value. While the energy and visceral properties of his more aggressive and conceptually dynamic works might forfeit said properties when subjected to the flattening treatment of print imaging, the high-minded and artistically valid messages Julian has spent a long career channeling prove remarkably resilient in the face of medium transference.
Profundity is difficult to mute when stemming a pure source. The artist’s eternal obligation to communicate solely in profound terms is an obligation which tends to transcend medium. Julian Opie appears to have borne the burden of artistic obligation with astonishingly creative perseverance, for which reason his work bears consideration in any form by which it might be showcased.