“Like the making of art itself, collecting reminds me of prospecting. Some perceived sparkle makes you start to dig and then a seam can be followed.”
Julian Opie is a British artist I’ve never looked at twice. His flat, graphic style always got the “so what?’ reaction. But reading about his art collection has changed that.
Opie has put together an exhibition* of his collection and his own work – and what strange bedfellows they are – portraits from the 17th and 18th centuries don’t, on the surface, connect with his “sculptures”.
In an article** about his show (and collecting habit) he says: “A chance encounter with (and purchase of) a ‘School of Godfrey kneeler’ portrait opened up the whole of 17th- and 18th-century portraiture or me. The painting caught my eye due to its powerful purposefulness and sense of being an object…When I started to investigate where it had come from, however, I began discovering a world of art parallel to, but quite separate from, the contemporary art world. … The list of artists kept growing as I found one who taught another or competed with another. … I began to understand the period in a way I had never done before … numerous brilliant, exciting artists I had never heard of, describing a whole world, evoking a whole scene. “
“It is tempting to see the present as special, but it is also exciting to realise that he past was once today. To me, the art of different periods brings those worlds parallel,” says Opie.
Subsequently he became interested in “ancient art”, buying a small marble Aphrodite and going on to learn more about the whole ancient period, from Roman statuary and portraiture to Tanagra Greek figurines and to all things Egyptian.
A pattern is evolving – stumble on the art, like it, (buy it,) get curious, investigate… “After the heated frenzy of having found and caught the work there follows a sense of calm. I look forward to having it on view.”
How does his collection inform his own art?
“Looking at other artists’ work gives me clues in terms of materials, composition, subject matter, colour – everything really. But it also reflects what my interests are, making me feel connected, giving me confidence. [Compared with ancient artists] artists now don’t really know what they are doing and have to invent or find this sense of obviousness and purpose for themselves.”
It works the other way round, too, Opie says. “Making art is in part a conversation with people about whom you can make certain assumptions of sameness. I assume my viewers are living in the same world as I am, that their picture of themselves and their surroundings is built of much the same material as mine. What art looks like, what images we have already seen, has great bearing on how we see new art. What we see is structured and defined by what we know, and a lot of that h=is to do with art from the past … I have always aimed to make my work with all that in mind, as part of its meaning and promise. If I make something that looks a bit like and 18th-century painting or reminds one of an information screen in an airport, it is because I mean it to.”
“…because I mean it to”… Through being informed about the history and context of art at different times, as Opie has done via his own art collection, the “meaning to” becomes something wider, deeper than the technical aspects of producing the work.
Telling the readers of this blog about the joys of learning about areas of art outside their own field of practice is unnecessary – you’ve read this far, after all! – but I can’t help thinking that this sort of interest or knowledge seems to be rather lacking in other parts of the textile-art field. Prove me wrong?
And, tell me … what’s on your walls? How does it influence the art you make?
**Published in Art Quarterly, Spring 2014; a draft is at julianopie.com. Images and captions in this post are drawn from those in the published article.