British artist Julian Opie, master of visual shorthand, goes solo in Shanghai with some stripped down sheep

From human hieroglyphs to a Blur album cover kept at London’s National Gallery, Opie doesn’t like to be categorised, and has included a broad range of works in his first exhibition in China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 April, 2017, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 6:29pm

Some artists like metaphors. Not Julian Opie. To him, a herd of sheep is a herd of sheep, and not a social commentary about being led by the nose.

“I like sheep because they are very good at extending their presence outward and transforming any environment into theirs,” he says, standing among identical sheep sculptures in his first solo exhibition in China.

Having more details in a picture doesn’t mean it’s more like reality
Julian Opie

“Put them in the middle of the city with grass to graze on and they would look perfectly normal. They are soothing. And human beings may use them for their wool rather than their meat and so we don’t have to feel too guilty.”

This complete lack of menace, this “niceness”, is how Opie’s art always comes across, though it is by no means dull.

Unexplained scrapping of Guggenheim show in Shanghai illustrates need to tread carefully in China

The British artist best known for his hieroglyphs of human figures on the move is fond of experimenting with materials, with ways of capturing faces, with technology and with Eastern and Western traditions. And his works are fun, like the Heatherwick Studio and Fosters + Partners-designed Fosun Foundation building in Shanghai where a selection of recent pieces are on show in an exhibition co-organised with London’s Lisson Gallery. It’s lined on the outside with rotating organ pipes and resembles a marvellous floating structure in a Hayao Miyazaki animation.

The walking, jogging, faceless figures drawn in thick, black outlines appear in different media: vinyl, mosaic tiles, as moving images on LED screens or painted on metal bas-reliefs. These figures are nameless types he has seen on the streets or on the London Underground, and he says he enjoys capturing the essence of people in visual shorthand. He loves drawing faces, too.

“It is one of the most interesting things about humans, and when you paint a face you steal some of that power of the individual.”

Guggenheim’s China show offers fresh view of post-1989 landscape

Here are mosaics, animations and three-dimensional sculptures that are detailed studies of individual faces almost realistic but for the dramatic shadowing effects that he borrows from Japanese manga.

The same sliding scale of detail applies to his landscapes. Some of them are so simple they are composed with just a few lines.

“Having more details in a picture doesn’t mean it’s more like reality. If you fly over parts of England in a plane you would see scenes very much like these,” he says, gesturing at large paintings of neatly parcelled agricultural land.

“I don’t feel I need to include all the details because people go through their lives using only the information they need, the impressions they get. We are not cameras.”

Paint me a picture: why portraiture is more than selfie-awareness

In others, he allows more details. His animation of Hong Kong’s harbour at night, for example, could be a video of the real thing. There is the shimmering water, a moving silhouette of the Star Ferry, and all the neon signs with the characters shown clearly. Except it is still an abstraction. He hasn’t included any outline of buildings.

He doesn’t call himself an abstract artist, a sculptor or a painter, he says. He is sui generis, unique, and objects to being grouped with other artists.

Asia’s Top Art Havens in Japan, Seoul, Taipei and Dunhuang

“I don’t deal with movements. When I started in the 1980s I was also grouped with other artists called the New British sculptors but that wasn’t really me. I am not a pop artist, either. Pop art was created by artists in the 1960s and 1970s. I admire them but that’s not what I do,” he says.

Yet pop is a word associated with Opie’s work, and that’s not because he did an album cover for Blur in 2000 – his original portrait of the band members is now kept at the National Gallery in London. There is a contemporariness to his work that is what pop is to music. Even the faceless figures are very clearly of our time because of their body shapes, their clothes and accessories.

“I rarely get people to sit for me. I just look around, or at photographs, and I put down the feelings I get about them. I like this way of mapping the world,” says Opie.

Julian Opie, Fosun Foundation, 600 Zhongshan East 2nd Rorad, Huangpu, Shanghai. Tue-Sun 10am-6pm. Until Jun 10.