Nudes and Tin-Tin

November 8, 1996

Julian Opie recalls life at a London art college in the late 1970s, when the teachers were so cool they outclassed the students.

The European League of Institutes of the Arts, founded in Amsterdam in 1990, is an independent association of 300 arts education institutes in 36 countries whose work ranges from architecture to dance; theatre to music. Its aims include promoting international cooperation between students and art lecturers throughout Europe.

The league's fourth bi-annual conference, Reflections on the Human Face, will be held in Lisbon next week in association with The THES. It will explore multiculturalism, developments and new technologies in arts education.

Martin Rennert, ELIA president writes: "The concept of multiculturalism leads us away from our towns and countries towards a European and in fact a global society in which all of us today find ourselves. It leads us into confrontation with European history, with postcolonial attitudes and the often patronising misunderstandings of 'enlightened' thought - and then leads us right back into our home towns. For there we have all by various means managed to create once again a further group of people whom we either cannot or will not reach out and speak to, les exclus of all kinds."

I have been drawing and painting almost every day since I was 13. It seemed a normal, or at least natural, thing to do, perhaps because my mother would sit down and paint when she was relaxed and had some spare time.

My first sculpture was made with a soldering iron and metal objects collected from around the house. I had an image of what a sculpture looked like and I tried to make one. My first painting was abstract. I thought it should be easy; red and blue, half and half, joining in a wavy line. I always had some idea of how each painting should look although I wasn't sure where it came from. The result was never quite what I had in mind, but there were some qualities that looked good to me and so I would build on those elements in the next one. Each work for the past 25 years has led directly from the previous one in an unbroken line, each time making adjustments to include new observations from the outside world and results from previous attempts.

I arrived at Chelsea College with one earring (the normal amount of piercing in 1979) and dyed black hair which made my face look deathly white. Art school was a revelation - an endless favourite lesson; not work since art was something I did anyway. The teaching was quite academic, but it made little difference to me, I was happy to try anything. I continued to make my versions of any kind of art that I knew of, though, apart from the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, I was not aware of contemporary art, much less an art world.

It was Michael Craig-Martin who told me there was an art world. I was shocked. I thought, vaguely, like everybody else I knew, that modern art was dead.

I chose Goldsmiths because it was the only college where there was no house style and no departmentalisation of painting and sculpture. This made sense to me. I have always picked the medium to suit the work that I envisaged and found switching ways of making things clarified what was basic.

Even so, I spent the first year painting nudes. I was rather lonely. The life class provided a circle of people, though we did not talk much, just stared intently at the model. I experimented with drawing very close up and the charcoal drawings became quite cubist. I was told to try to see the shape around the model as positive, so I built some electric engines and put them behind the canvas and made bits of the painting move. This introduced me to the workshops and I never returned to the life room. It was like a nest, warm, smelly and unchanging.

The rest of the college was much more exciting. I worked in the film department to further animate the paintings, and in the textile, wood-working and printing departments, the foundry, the painting studios and around again. Goldsmiths provided this freedom, somewhat by default, as no one checked on what I was doing, at least it seemed that way. I wrote three essays in three years, one of which was a detective story.

We invited tutors to come and talk to us individually for intense hour-long sessions. The teachers were strange and impressive. Glen Baxter, who drew cartoons, Nick De Ville who designed album covers for Roxy Music, Chris Pace who looked like Steve McQueen, wore jean suits and was said to have been a star when he was young. It seemed amazing that the teachers could be cooler than the students. The coolest of all were Richard Wentworth and Michael Craig-Martin. Richard was tall and handsome, looking like an English lord. I did not understand anything he said, but he was funny and treated you as an equal. Michael was American. He knew about the art world, even came from it, and he told things like they were. Finally I had met someone who talked about art in a way that made sense to me, he opened my eyes.

I reached an impasse in the second year. Studying Tin-Tin and De Chirico led me to make a series of increasingly tedious watercolours of surreal cartoon characters. Meanwhile I had fun making remote controlled speed boats. Michael suggested putting the two together and I started to make sculptures of paintings and vice versa. I also began to see that admitting things was funny, and provided a way to pass through the culture barrier. I wanted to make art like my heroes, which is pathetic until you admit it and then it becomes transparent, allowing other meanings to surface.

Michael left for America in my final year but continued to teach me by mail. I wish I could find those letters. He would say such radical things as "it has to look good" and quote Warhol: "If you have to make a decision, something is wrong".

I didn't have many friends, but Lisa Milroy, Andrew Carnie, Simon Newell, John Chapell and myself all became very aware of each others' work. This provided an energy and sense of competition which spread across the studios. There was a common link to what we did. We all made figurative work, not in a traditional sense, but as a (five year late) rebuff to abstraction, minimalism and conceptualism. We also shared an attitude to styles which was to use them rather than work within one of them.

By then I was making three-dimensional metal cut-outs that were then painted to appear to be trying to be three-dimensional, cheapened versions of over-serious heavy-metal sculptures that had been popular in England. The subject was self-reference, the personal seen through the slick cliche, done with self mocking bravura. I used titles such as "Eat Dirt Art History", "I'm in Love" and "Cultural Baggage".

The self-confidence of the school meant that we were encouraged. People in other colleges making similar work were forced into a corner and their work became about being extreme. Our work was taken seriously as a matter of course which gave us the self-confidence to be really dumb.

Michael came back from America in time to see our degree shows and suggested we stage an exhibition, which we did in a space under Richard Wentworth's studio. Nick Serota, the then director of the Whitechapel Gallery and Sara Kent of Time Out came, and we got a review. We took all this for granted or at least I did. I always assumed I would succeed, though I had no idea what this meant.

Michael put my works up in his studio and invited Nicholas Logsdail, director of the Lisson Gallery, to come and see them. Nicholas took a couple back to his gallery, and Charles Saatchi wanted to buy everything I had ever made. He did not actually buy anything but it helped.

Many years later I went back to Goldsmiths to teach. It did not really work for me. I prefer to be in the studio. Goldsmiths has moved to New Cross and I do not like the building or the way it is mixed up with other parts of the university. I still feel like a student around the other teachers, some of whom taught me. I would talk for too long with each student and get tired and sometimes bored. Government pressure for measurable results and economy has meant more guidelines and group teaching. Student work and the teachers' response to it should be the central dynamic to an art school. The best system makes itself invisible leaving the space for the students.

It is still a great and energetic school with the essential ingredient of a high percentage of part-time staff who are active artists. I feel badly about not teaching and would like to try again, maybe when I finish the next batch of work.

Julian Opie will represent Britain in the Delhi Triennale. He exhibits regularly at the Lisson Gallery, London.

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