When is a sign not a sign? 

Julian Opie: Signs
Through 2007

It’s not enough to ask, “What is art?” In many cases, art has as much to do with context as content. Such is certainly the case with the current citywide exhibition of work by internationally known artist Julian Opie, brought here by the Arts Council of Indianapolis, with funding and support from numerous local institutions, including the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission. Opie, who spoke to a standing-room crowd at Herron School of Art & Design last Wednesday, has built a career around the question of all things visual: How do we interpret what we see in the world around us — whether it’s encountered as art or not?

The 40-something British artist has shown in exhibitions worldwide for nearly 20 years; but somewhere along the line he decided to take the art outside of four walls. It’s not just public art, it’s public art that dances with its surroundings — or is intended to.
Opie’s latest obsession is photographing and/or filming individuals — mostly women — and then, through a highly complex technical process, distilling their image into its basic components: line and color. The result is a stylized figure resembling those we see on street crossing signs, except that these maintain some aspect of individuality. And yet they are decidedly unrecognizable.

Opie’s figures are on view through the downtown area and on the glass façade of the Indianapolis Museum of Art entrance pavilion. There are 11 installations total, one exception to the figure rule being a small cityscape composed of vinyl boxes. If you can get hold of one of the Arts Council brochures (check the Artsgarden in Circle Centre Mall or other arts organizations), you’ll find a map with a suggested driving tour (or walking, if you’re really ambitious). My family took the driving tour, easily finding all but two of the sculptures.

Because I had attended Opie’s lecture, I knew what to expect, more or less; and I can’t say I was disappointed — having seen the images on screen in the Herron auditorium, it was sort of like a scavenger hunt in search of billboards of old friends. And that fits neatly into Opie’s idea of “what art is.” Inspired by commercial graphic art, Opie intends his images to, if not confuse the viewer, then challenge him or her to make associations between his “signs” and how they view the commercial and official signs that are so plentiful — indeed, insidious.

Are we to see commercial design as art? Opie would seem to think so; or rather, as he put it, he enjoys “playing with someone’s expectations.” By placing larger-than-life, often billboard sized, portraits in places typically reserved for advertisements, Opie suggests that what we see as art is indeed in the eye of the beholder: “I’m always looking around for ways in which art can exist.”

To visit Julian Opie: Signs, pick up a map at the Arts Council or give them a call at 317-631-3301 to find out how. Visit www.indyarts.org to learn more.

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