Summary

H is a large, wall-mounted sculpture resembling an air conditioning or heating vent. It has a rectangular box sub-structure. The front surface is a welded steel louvred panel consisting of twenty-two slats, spray painted with matt black cellulose paint. Narrow strips of raw aluminium border the louvred panel and all the other edges of the sculpture. They are mitred at the front, resulting in four sharp corners. The aluminium strips are secured with regularly spaced stainless steel screws, which protrude slightly from the surface of the aluminium and form a minimal patterning. The sides of the sculpture are covered with padded white pvc, bordered by aluminium strips. In contrast to the steel and aluminium components which are hard, the pvc is soft. The aluminium and pvc are shiny, unlike the painted steel which is matt. The sculpture should be installed ten to fifteen centimetres above floor level to emphasise its industrial appearance. Since it looks like a functional object, the artist has suggested that it may be installed near to such architectural features as a door.

H is one in a series of similar structures resembling manufactured objects, which Opie made in the late 1980s. These sculptures, either wall-mounted or free-standing, are reminiscent of such domestic and industrial furniture as display cabinets, refrigerators and air vents. Opie titled them with neutral single letters or a mixture of letters and numbers, evoking the serial or model numbers normally used to identify manufactured products in sales brochures. He has emphasised this commodity aspect of his work by producing sales brochure-type exhibition catalogues listing sculptural objects for sale (for example the catalogue listed below produced for his exhibition at Kohji Ogura Gallery, Nagoya Japan 1991). The functional properties of some works are actually displayed in the catalogue, subverting the traditional non-functional status of a sculptural object. Works such as the Night Lights 1989 are illustrated viewed from the front, illuminated, as well as from the back, displaying electrical cords and cooling vents. H, despite its appearance, does not function as a vent but, like the Night Lights, it has been transformed from its usual status by its large size and meticulously hand-crafted appearance. These sculptures are all hybrids, bearing resemblance to more than one type of ‘ready-made’ object. Opie has commented: ‘the process of reading things as simulations but knowing at the same time that they are real is quite central to my work’ (quoted in Julian Opie 1993, p.71).

Like the famous Fountain of 1917, replicated in 1964 (Tate T07573), with which Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) launched the concept of the ready-made, Opie’s sculptures apparently raise objects from the everyday, functional (and perhaps even banal) world, into the realm of high art. However, although they resemble readymade objects, they have not actually been appropriated from the world of everyday. They are made specifically as sculptures. The Minimalist sculptures produced by such artists as Donald Judd (1928-94) depend for their effect on phenomenological perception (the viewer’s visual and physical relation to or encounter with the work). In a similar way, Opie’s sculptural objects depend upon a sensual and tactile response from the viewer. His refined aesthetic of clinical modern materials (a late 1980s version of Minimalism) combines with Duchamp’s concept of the readymade to produce what Michael Newman has referred to as ‘anti-libidinal fetishes ... Opie fetishizes steel, aluminium, pvc and glass in such a way that they reject libidinal investment. The gaze slides off their surfaces - there is no incident for it to fixate.’ (Quoted in Julian Opie 1988, [p.15-16].) In the mid 1980s American artist Jeff Koons (born 1955) aestheticised and fetishised household objects with such works as Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank 1985 (Tate T06991). Similarly, Opie’s sculptures of this period are objects designed and created for consumer desire.

Further reading:
Julian Opie, exhibition catalogue, Lisson Gallery, London 1988, reproduced [p.20]
James Roberts, Julian Opie, exhibition catalogue, Kohji Ogura Gallery, Nagoya Japan 1991, p.19, reproduced (colour) p.6
Julian Opie, exhibition catalogue, South Bank Centre, London 1993, reproduced (colour) p.25

Elizabeth Manchester
September 2002