Julian Opie: A fresh take on classic majesty

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Julian Opie's show of portraits, busts and mosaics owes much to Greece and Rome. But the artist's eagerness to use new technology and materials creates a sense of detachment, says Adrian Hamilton

There can be few artists who seem as fresh in their work as Julian Opie.

The faceless figures are so vivid in their vinyl, the landscapes so clear in their block colour. But there is also a feeling of distance which has come into his work of late, a sense of growing detachment from the work itself. In the case of his landscapes, a mood of loss may be intentional as he pictures a French countryside he knows is disappearing with a way of life. But there is also a certain emptiness in his portraits as he moves to mosaic, inlay and sculpted heads.

Maybe it is to read too much in the feeling, or lack of it, in his figuration. Opie, now in his mid 50s, is above all an artist of form, ever eager to pick up the latest technology and the new materials to recast the traditional genres of painting. All are on display in his latest exhibition at the Lisson Gallery: the computer animations, mosaics, the inkjet on canvas and the scanned resin busts. So, too, are his long-standing themes: the walking people, the nudes of his wife, the portraits of society women and the heads of his assistants and his family.

And very engaging they are. With the full-length portraits he has turned from facial feature to fabric effect. In the manner of Ingres he portrays his sitters clad in fashionable frocks standing by pillars and classical urns. The faces are blank but the gowns are done with panache. In a way it is every society woman's dream – to be presented in their finery but not with their wrinkles. One might wish for a little wit (although the works are not without a certain wry humour). Cindy Sherman would, and has, made something quite else of such neoclassical figures. But they are remarkably effective in their blend of classical majesty and modern self adornment.

The classical setting is maintained in the main room of the exhibition, which Opie has deliberately organised in the manner of a museum gallery, with rows of busts, a line of walking figures on the wall, a grouping of mosaics at the entrance and standing works in the middle. It is an impressive sight. The busts, cast in resin, have been made from digital scans of his subjects and then hand-painted, all with one side of the face shadowed, all staring into space like the funerary busts of the Roman world. The mosaic portraits – a fairly recent development in Opie's art – are equally shadowed with the colour range and graduation limited by the medium (they have been made in Rome).

The standing works also owe much to Greece and Rome. The artist's wife is depicted in enamel on glass, disrobed in the manner of the Greek Venuses. Outlined figures are inscribed on granite and marble looking like massive sarcophagus lids. With his emblematic walking figures, Opie has moved out of the studio into the city streets to photograph anonymous Londoners at work, reflecting the figures in vinyl on wooden stretcher. They are arranged in a line on the wall as a modern version of Egyptian and Assyrian friezes, only Opie's figures stride in different directions, their faces blank as they go their hurried way. Just as in ancient friezes they are symbolic in their anonymity, yet in their colour and movement they are also very real.

The total effect of this figurative work is intentionally sculptural but also funereal. Opie is a master of the materials and imagery of billboard simplification. It gives his figures a brashness and an energy that belies pomposity. Yet, save in the openly erotic disrobed figures, his search for a statuesque style sets the viewer at a distance. The sitters are real enough and the walking figures drawn from contemporary life. Yet you feel that you are looking at people already of the past and depersonalised. They are captured and pared down, not lovingly delineated.

No such feelings arise with Opie's landscapes and computer animations. It may be unfortunate that the show has come so soon after David Hockney made such a splash with his Yorkshire landscapes at the Royal Academy. Opie uses some of the same techniques of digital sketching and screen presentation. But his views of France, where he has a house, have a more elegiac feel than Hockney's bursting ambition to take hold of landscapes and own them.

A series consisting of over 70 digital sketches, based on images taken every 20 steps on circular walks with his son, view the countryside in summer and in winter. The images click down to the sound of music specially commissioned from Paul Englishby, adding to the elegiac tone. It would be pretentious (well, it is a bit) if it wasn't for the simplicity of the forms and the purity of their colour.

Taking his inspiration from Japanese landscape prints, of which he is something of a connoisseur, Opie has also moved from his first more imitative versions of Hiroshige to computer animations, in which images of trees and flowers are presented on a vertical screen, enlivened by insects and other effects randomly animated by a computer programme. Outside in the gallery yard, but visible from the street, is a horse on both sides of a large screen endlessly galloping to nowhere, while a smaller screen below shows a boy equally endlessly peeing, based on the famous fountain in Brussels. You might well prefer the original.

One's concern with Opie is not that he is too hi-tech. He never disguises the technology but always uses it to an end. The worry is that, in some of his latest work, the end seems to be to apply it to traditional art genres as an exercise in itself. No one is asking him to change into a conceptual artist. The Lisson has an intriguing little show of Ryan Gander's new work in a nearby gallery for that. But, while one admires Opie's technique, one wishes one could feel more of the man.

Julian Opie, Lisson Gallery, 29 Bell Street, London NW1 (020 7724 2739) to 25 August

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015