Julian Opie review – we need so much more from art than this empty irony

Pitzhanger Manor, London
Staged in Sir John Soane’s Ealing mansion, Opie’s brand of dot-eyed simplicity – epitomised here by a sterile model town showpiece – is stuck in the 90s

A Julian Opie woman is striding towards the facade of Sir John Soane’s mansion in Ealing. This animated, larger-than-life figure in the forecourt is a flat sculpture for the digital age, flickering in white lines on a black screen mounted on a plinth. If you don’t know what I mean by a Julian Opie woman, she’s a line drawing in profile of someone in the street, stylish and contemporary. Other women in the show look at phones or tote bags in similarly simplified delineations.

I couldn’t help wondering what happens when she reaches the house. Will she bump her head? Or will the structure crumble into ruins under the impact of the 21st century? For Opie’s exhibition at Soane’s Pitzhanger Manor is not so much an encounter between new and old as a car crash in which a high-end motor smashes into a centuries-old yew tree.

There’s very little to suggest any affinity whatsoever between Opie and Soane or any reason why Opie should want to have an exhibition here. He captured 1990s New Labour Britain with dot-eyed exactitude. He created the album cover for The Best of Blur and should surely have been commissioned to portray Tony Blair. He is still producing paintings and sculptures that reduce the world to simple, clear lines. A dog is sketched in space as a two-dimensional metal statue. Out in the garden there are digitally animated black drawings of crows.

An installation view of Julian Opie at Pitzhanger Manor and Gallery, featuring Deer 2 and Dog 4.
Reducing the world to clear lines ... An installation view of Julian Opie at Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery, featuring Deer 2 and Dog 4. Photograph: Andy Stagg

Soane was an eccentric genius of the French Revolutionary age who supercharged classical architecture to create Romantic feeling. He was a very early pioneer of installation art, putting a mausoleum in the middle of Dulwich Picture Gallery, south London, and turning his townhouse at Lincoln’s Inn Fields into an atmospherically lit museum of moods and stimuli. Surely the contemporary art that suits this house ought to be in that vein – spooky videos, sepulchral casts, surrealistic taxidermy.

Instead, they’ve brought in the driest of big-name artists. Opie makes one half-hearted concession to Soane’s appetite for the gothic. He shows tall sculptures of Portuguese medieval towers, drawn in space in open metal frameworks. All they achieve is to clog the sightlines in the show and make it an ugly mess.

The heart, if that’s the right word, of the exhibition is a project in which Opie has translated the streets of a small French town into a 3D computer model. The houses are simplified and abstracted, their windows blank. You can enter these sterile streets by watching a video. My mind wandered. There’s not even a joystick to twiddle.

Vic Fezensac 1, 2021.
A locked-down pandemic world? ... Vic Fezensac 1, 2021. Photograph: Julian Opie

Opie seems stuck in an early 1990s phase of virtual art when to construct a fictional space on screen was considered mind-blowing. Yet it is not a technical deficit but an emotional emptiness that renders this art so null. Looking at two big backlit paintings of the same semi-abstract town, I found myself wondering who would ever want to hang these and why. The artist is playing a game with himself. He has turned a real place into an abstract model, then painted the model. It’s an experiment in representation so chilled and ironic that it manages to be and say nothing.

Opie has gone a step further and built his art town at chest height. You can walk its streets, or four of them, at least, looking more closely at windows and doors that resemble paintings by Yves Klein and Barnett Newman. The sheer weirdness of this is momentarily interesting. The town is hellish. Its emptiness might almost signify the frightening void of a locked-down pandemic world. But I don’t think so. This is the art of the old world, running on empty. A few years ago I found this artist’s games with representation – how much can you simplify an image and still make it recognisable? – quite diverting. But we need so much more from art now.

At best, you could call this a meeting of two eccentrics. There’s an obscurity behind Opie’s simplicity. He must have some reason to create that model town. It could be his utopia or dystopia. But whatever it means to him remains private. His interest in depiction has flattened into a style that has decayed into a trademark. Everything he looks at becomes an Opie. That reaches its nadir in the courtyard with the digital woman contemplating Soane’s facade. I couldn’t look at her for long. Instead, I was drawn to the melancholia of this Georgian design that evokes the rise and fall of empires, the vastness of human history and tragedy, all in an Ealing park. Soane’s pessimistic imagination has something to say to us now. Opie doesn’t.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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