You pass an office building. 3 is a large wall painting, the dimensions of which are determined by the space in which it is to be installed. It depicts the façade of an office building, represented as a simple composition of squares, rectangles and stripes denoting such architectural features as windows and doors. Black, white and two shades of grey are precisely applied in geometric blocks of colour. The wall should first be painted light blue. All the colours are monotone. The painting is made using water-based acrylic paint applied with a roller for even application. Low-tack masking tape is applied to the wall at the edges of each area when painting. The work is not dependent on the artist’s presence for its execution. The painting is carried out by professional sign painters following his instructions, which consist of templates, measurements and a list detailing the order in which areas should be painted (and how to do it with precision). These include such specifications as ‘1. Choose a good clear horizontal wall (it can have a low skirting board, but better without, plugs are a good thing and should be removed, cleaned and replaced when painting is finished, a door is possible but not too close, other art is not a good thing.)’. (Quoted from Opie’s statement in Tate Conservation files.) You pass an office building. 3 is one of a series of thirteen wall paintings based on images Opie has also used in other media. Like the related sculptures, You see an office building. 2, 3, 4 and 5 1996 (Tate T07208-T07211), the office building represented in the wall painting resembles a typical office building of the 1960s. There are hills in the distance (C) 1996 (Tate T07191) is a wall painting depicting a landscape of grass and hills.

Opie’s earliest wall paintings are scaled-up versions of his paintings on wood. He subsequently began to think of them as backdrops to installations of his sculptural objects, creating environments in which the viewer becomes part of the scene rather than remaining an observer at a distance. Although the wall painting may be exhibited as a painting in its own right, it may provide the background for such works as a life-sized model of a car, You are driving a Volvo 1996 (Tate T07207), and a series of scaled-down office buildings, You see an office building. 2, 3, 4 and 5 1996 (Tate T07208-T07211). These six elements were combined in a room at Tate Modern when it opened in May 1998.

The creation of a wall painting (or drawing) to be executed by technicians following the artist’s instructions is standard practice for American artist Sol LeWitt (born 1928), who began making such proposals in the late 1960s. Such wall drawings as A Wall Divided Vertically into Fifteen Equal Parts, Each with a Different Line Direction and Colour, and all Combinations 1970 (Tate T01766), may be installed in different sites and on different scales. In a similar manner, Opie’s wall paintings involve a practical flexibility. Like his work in other media, Opie’s wall paintings are based on the ‘multiple modular method’ described by LeWitt in his famous ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’ (first printed in Artforum, vol.5, no.10, June 1967, pp.79-83). Opie derives his modules from photographs of some of the basic elements of ordinary suburban life. He alters the photographs on the computer to produce stylised and simplified images which become ‘generic’ symbols. Extreme simplification brings out some elements and loses others, generating questions around visual language and how images are recognised. This aspect is emphasised by the use of such titles as Cityscape? 1998-9 (Tate P78314), a print depicting a landscape similar to that portrayed in You pass an office building. 3. Through the mid 1990s Opie expanded the principles of modular variation into other kinds of structures and across artistic media. Works consisting of the same or similar images, with the same or similar titles, appear as sculptures, wall paintings, paintings, c-type and lambda prints, posters and videos. The works’ status as commodities are emphasised by their presentation in catalogues designed to resemble sales brochures, detailing all available versions and listing prices (Julian Opie: Sculptures Films Paintings, 2001). Modular structures are the basis of all post-industrial modes of production, design and presentation. Opie’s use of these processes exposes their potentially dehumanising effects.

Further reading:
Julian Opie, exhibition catalogue, British Council 1997, pp.14, 44 and 46-7
Julian Opie: Sculptures Films Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Lisson Gallery, London 2001, pp.8-9 and 13, reproduced (colour) p.9
Julian Opie, exhibition catalogue, Ikon, Birmingham 2001

Elizabeth Manchester
September 2002