Julian Opie: 'I'm not sure what art is'

Known for slick images like his portrait of Blur, Julian Opie is now the subject of a major retrospective. He takes Stuart Jeffries through it

One evening, Julian Opie went to a Soho strip club. He had a pole in his studio and needed a dancer. "I'd bought the pole on the internet," Opie says, as he takes me around a new retrospective of his work. "I thought I could get more dynamic poses from models."

What was he looking for? "Someone who danced well." A stripper called Shahnoza, originally from Tehran, fitted the bill and, a few days later, she arrived at Opie's east London studio with various outfits and her own music. For the next two days, Opie took more than 2,000 photographs and filmed as she danced and stripped.

Opie had been commissioned to make a series of drawings for the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. He decided his Shahnoza pictures would appear on the walls of a room full of Henry Moore sculptures, mostly reclining nudes: "I wanted to complement and contrast with the imposing, sedate and serious white sculptures," he explains.

Opie made the pictures by drawing, with his computer, over digital images of Shahnoza. He then emailed these to a vinyl-cutter in Canada who turned them into stickybacked plastic shapes that were stuck to the gallery walls. Moore's nudes sit on plinths, while giant images of Shahnoza now slink around the walls, pulling off her knickers in one pose. Her head was reduced to a simple circle – a customary Opie riff that, in this context, seemed to allude to Moore's trademark holes.

Opie has often made such artistic rejoinders. As a student at Goldsmith's in London, he copied famous artworks for a series called Eat Dirt, Art History. He'd draw an El Greco very loosely and write underneath it: "Eat Dirt El Greco." As he told an interviewer: "It was an acknowledgement of the hopeless position of the art student in light of art history, but also a rallying call not to feel overwhelmed by it."

Opie, born in London in 1958, graduated in the early 1980s, a generation before the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin arrived. He revelled in the punk sensibility of the time, the rebellion against tradition. He denies, however, any lewd intent with his This is Shahnoza series. "I don't start with an agenda – it's possible to start that way, but I don't."

Instead, he says, he sets out to strip things down, the purpose being to reflect and play on not just other art, but on the artifice that he thinks frames contemporary experience: how what is seemingly natural in human behaviour is made up of learned performance codes, how artistic conventions constrain artistic practice. But why a poledancer doing a striptease? "I don't take responsibility for what's out there, but I use it nonetheless."

This is Shahnoza exemplifies many Opie themes: engagement with art history, use of new technology, obsession with the human body. It also shows how Opie loves to work with one idea across different media. Shahnoza has now been immortalised in painting, granite, silkscreen and LED animation (in which she dances in bra and pants or in skimpy white dress). In at least one portrait, her head is represented by something other than a circle. But even then, she's still stripped down: the schematic image of her face in flat colours and minimal detail is poised between generic and particular. She's more Opie than Shahnoza.

The drawings appear in a new catalogue published by the Alan Cristea gallery in London, to go with the Opie retrospective it has just opened. Called Editions 1984-2011, the show charts Opie's development from early reductive landscapes and portraits, to silhouettes, animations, lenticulars, LCD and LED animations. For all this, Opie may be best known for his blandly homogenised portrait of Blur for the cover of their 2000 The Best Of album.

Does he ever find this array of possible media discombobulating? After all, in a interview for an exhibition of Utagawa Hiroshige woodblock prints he curated in 2008, he seemed envious of the narrow range of options available to his hero, the 19th-century Japanese artist: "I think Hiroshige would have had much more of a sense of what his role was and what the job entailed. Now who knows what an artist should do?"

"I still feel that," he says now, as we stand in front of his 2009 work View of Mount Fuji with Daisies from Route 300. "For artists at art school, the freedom must be a burden. There's no tradition of bronze or oil painting, no tradition you can embed yourself in – which was what Hiroshige was able to do. At the same time, I relish the range of options available because I don't want to be tied down. I want to embrace good-looking options."

Like Shahnoza, this Japanese landscape also comes in different media. The version we're looking at is made of lenticular panels that waver as you walk by, creating a sense of both depth and movement. But there is also a computer animation of the same scene: depending on which programme is running, either a flock of birds fly across the picture, or the daisies gently flutter. Does he write the programmes himself? "No. I used to physically construct all of my work. Now I prefer being a conductor. I go round my studio getting the inkjet printer guy or the algorithm guy to do my bidding."

We move to some silhouettes he made of himself. Before photography, silhouette profiles, cut from black card, were the cheapest way of recording a person's appearance. "It's a purportedly obsolete and vulgar art form. It surprises me that I care about it. I used to have a stricter idea of what art was. Now I feel much less sure. I'm not really sure what art is."

Next is a 2001 marble piece called Remember Her This Way (Lying). The blocks of marble are engraved with the outline of a female nude with a bubble head. It was made for Opie by Elfes, a firm of Jewish monumental masons: Opie had become entranced by some engraved stone he saw in their old showroom on Brick Lane every time he visited the Whitechapel gallery nearby. What was the appeal? "It's an ancient and permanent way of drawing. The line is cut and sandblasted out and the groove filled with hand-hammered lead."

Didn't the masons baulk at such a sleazy-seeming commission? "Not at all. But plenty of other people have self-censoring compunctions about my work. Most of my problems are with public bodies, which is a shame because I am committed to making public sculptures. In Soho, I had a problem with an image of a nude woman I wanted to put up, which amazed me. You can't move in that area for nude figures. That one on the corner of Hyde Park with the very pert bottom, for instance." He may well mean Richard Westmacott's 1822 nude sculpture of Achilles. "In America, it's a nightmare. You can't have figures smoking, and they're very uncomfortable about depicting a figure's race."

He is currently struggling to get funding for a public sculpture of 3-metre-high figures that will take an LED walk over the Thames via Hungerford Bridge. Why is he so interested in movement? "Have you ever seen a dead body? It's the most freaky thing to see the human body at rest. Movement is the fourth dimension in art. In painting, movement is implied – say, in the drapery. In my picture of a Formula One driver, it's implied, too. The road is temptingly there. It was inspired by computer-game landscapes. I'm creating the illusion of movement."

Opie finds women easier to pose than men, he says. "Men are perhaps not intrinsically easy to look at, or are less easy about being looked at and need to be doing something." That's why, when he drew Bryan Adams, he had him holding a guitar. And that's why, he suggests, Warhol's Elvis has a gun. Women don't need such accessories when Opie draws them, although he's not sure why. "Is it the viewer, or the viewed, or the artist? I don't know. I go by trial and error. If it works, I follow it up. If I see something in the world that sings, I grab it."

• This article was amended on 13 June 2011. In the original, the first paragraph was missing the word "he". This has been corrected.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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