Having a fling with history

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JULIAN Opie seems to be an out-and-out modernist. Everything in his work seems calculated to topple the accumulated pile of history. Deftness and visual humor are his tools for questioning, lightly satirizing, or simply disrupting the inertia of the past. He resorts to slick commonplaces of commercial art as his adopted language. Like a writer using a crude vernacular to jolt himself free of tired usage, Opie's style employs such grossly overused formulas as the swift dash of thick white paint for highlights, black for shadows and edges, darker tonal smudges for shadows, and squiggles to suggest printed words too small to be seen at a distance. But he contrives to use the easy options of these techniques in such surprising contexts, and with such undisguised verve, that they come to act as some sort of vitalizing quality of his own contribution to ``art.''

It is as if he is saying that, for all its transitory cheapness and lack of profundity, the immediate present has one all-important advantage over the past: It is alive. Artists, willy-nilly, should be creatures of the present. To this end Opie makes works whose subject matter and symbolism, as well as style, are bent toward capturing the instantaneous. He is as intrigued by the momentary as a French Impressionist.

He plays with the age-old magical capacity of visual art to imitate, or swiftly suggest, the appearance of objects, and represents in the comprehensive economy of his adaptable technique anything from a wedge of Brie or a loaf of bread to a ``Manet,'' from an airmail letter to a loaded paintbrush daubing blue paint across a gaggle of flying blank canvases. Everything reduces to a passing impression. Objects become signals.

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In this spontaneous (and rather familiar) world the package becomes the thing: A bar of chocolate becomes its wrapper, value-for-money becomes a plastic credit card or a flimsy paper check, learning and literature become a teetering tower of hefty and probably unread classics, abstract sculpture (satirically reminiscent of David Smith's) becomes a batch of commodities -- an Oxo cube leaning against an oversize pack of opal fruits propped up by a can of pilchards. Painting becomes a suitcase falling open in midair and depositing a load of ``old masters'' on the floor. This slightly provocative gesture cannot be read as a commentary on the overvaluing of works of art by the marketplace, but the obverse: on the cheapening of art by reproduction, overexposure, and familiarity. The piece is dubbed ``Cultural Baggage.''

Opie imitates appearances, and displays a relish in the process. But a scrupulous, deceiving trompe l'oeil is far from his aim. Instead he is after an ``ease'' of representation that is no subtler than a cartoonist's, and just as animating. According to his own words, he ``draws'' rather than painting or sculpturing; but his works seem to fall, fascinatingly, in a previously little explored area between the conventional categories of painting and sculpture. His ``ease'' allows him to seem utterly casual -- even thoughtless. In fact, it gives him a striking economy and directness of statement. And he presents disparate clues, hints, and notions that can prompt connections and stimulate thinking.

It has to be critically admitted, however, that sometimes he can seem merely to illustrate -- though communicatively enough -- an idea much more easily written.

He seems enormously to enjoy the illusionism of painting, and forces whatever is sculptural in his work to serve this end. The ``unreality'' of painted images always predominates, and the sculptural is its background.

His ``Incident in the Library II'' seems to be a heap of books standing weightily on the ground. Only at second looking does the unquestioning eye see it as a painting. It takes further investigation to realize that it is sculpture. In reality it is a two-part steel sculpture or relief, painted and hung like a picture on the wall.

The ``old masters'' tipped out of the suitcase are like an Indian rope trick. The piece's structure as a floor sculpture is the exact opposite of its appearance. The apparently falling ``Manet,'' ``Van Gogh,'' ``Mondrian,'' ``Hals,'' and so forth (each painted with a deliberately appalling abandon, but as instantly recognizable as a favorite box of cookies) actually support the suitcase out of which they seem to tumble.

If Opie, then, seems, in his carefree insistence on the primacy of ``now,'' to liberate his art from the past, there remains something in his persistent reference to that accumulative past which suggests the other side of the coin. To rebel against the past, the modernist has to acknowledge it.

His disruption of it may at least be tinged with admiration for it. He may even paradoxically find that his own originality can be debased by his apparently vital need to undervalue the art of the past. It is a predicament, a Catch-22 situation -- and Opie is as ironically caught by it in his bid for freshness as were any of his many avant-garde predecessors. He knows it. And he makes his strikingly energetic, consciously lightweight art out of an ironic attempt to escape from it.

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