Books: In the frame: Julian Opie

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The Independent Culture
IN their illustrated paperback Julian Opie ( pounds 16.99), Thames & Hudson have repackaged the catalogue to Opie's recent exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London as a book, and one can see why they felt justified in doing so. Exhibition catalogues seem to be becoming ever heavier - even when the artist is, like Opie, youngish, and hardly a household name - and this one, containing five critical essays and around 100 illustrations, has a life quite independent of the show. Perhaps more significantly, Opie, at 36, might be young but he is also precocious, and already has an impressive enough body of work behind him to merit a book that explores all the diverse aspects of his art.

Opie's work explores the disappointing legacy of modernism's Olympian aspirations; it takes a disenchanted look at yesterday's 'City of Tomorrow' as it is today. Modernism's pure geometric forms, bright colours and technological materials appear again and again in Opie's paintings and sculpture, but never as the modernists intended. Works like 'H, G, N, 23G/57' are half reminiscent of some generic, nameless school of modern sculpture; but these indeterminate, elusive objects - and their mute titles - also evoke unlovely fridges, airducts, urinals and telephone kiosks. Other works, whether sculptures made from brightly coloured wooden boxes or two dimensional images like 'Painting of It is believed that some dinosaurs could run faster than a cheetah' (reproduced here), recall design for brave new cubist cities, and yet at the same time are uncomfortably reminiscent of a collection of jolly but dumb children's building-blocks.

Even if Opie's work reflects disillusion with modern design and technology, it is far too sophisticated simply to condemn these things. Instead it laughs at them. His kiosks and shelving-units, brightly coloured blocks and architectural models are scaleless, purposeless and banal, but they are not so much ugly as ridiculous. Or take the recent 'road paintings'. Opie's images of motorways as a seen from a driver's wheel are powerfully evocative of the mindlessness of driving, of the way in which it erases the individual characteristics from countryside and town alike. But Opie's paintings also draw on the images of computer driving games, and in that way suggest the absurd pleasure motorways afford. Opie sees something funny in the no-man's-lands - the atopias - that we have all come to inhabit. And perhaps it is true that once you have laughed at the emptiness of the space you are in, it ceases to feel quite so empty.

Yet despite the value of this monograph as the a record of a remarkable body of work, it is hard not to be struck by the contrast between the exhibition that launched the book and the book itself. The first was a public event, and Opie's work - so obviously centred on themes and issues of concern to everyone, and funny to boot - provided numerous points of entry to the uninitiated. The essays collected here, on the other hand (by Wulf Herzogenrath, Ulrich Look, James Roberts, Lynne Cooke, and Michael Newman), belong to the semi-private world of academic art criticism.

Some, it is true, are harder than others. Lynne Cooke's essay on Opie's scaled buildings is erudite but theory- heavy: 'In accepting that reality may remain forever a fantasy, the sign now refuses to attempt to resuscitate that reality, privileging the domain of play over that of actuality.' By contrast, the comparison that James Roberts draws, in his piece, between Opie's work and the ideal world of Herge's Tintin struck home: Herge's drawings abound with sports cars, electric trains and swing-winged jets, and as with Opie's pieces, these objects are both alluringly new and superficial. Taken together, though, these essays display very little of the openess or the humour that are such prominent features of Opie's work - and, after all, an artist who can make you see the comic side of tower blocks and motorways must be funny. Still, a typically lively and unexpected selection of Opie's drawings and photographs runs alongside these rather frustrating texts and enlivens them.