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Julian Opie’s most comprehensive solo U.S. show gets city’s flash of approval

Very early one recent morning, rushing to Penn Station, my cabbie stopped in front of a coffee cart on the corner of Chambers and Centre Streets. The spring air was crisp and velvety-blue in the pre-dawn light and the blocks around City Hall hadn’t yet filled up with workers.

I sleepily watched a mesmerizing pair of lanky, elegant figures whose non-stop legs seem to be descending the Tweed Courthouse staircase.

From the street, “Sara Walking” and “Bruce Walking,” two L.E.D. panels by the British artist Julian Opie, are mounted at eye-level on either side of the grand courthouse’s main staircase. The looped computer animations, based on sketches of human models, are embedded into flat, life-sized glass and aluminum panels. The simple drawings—empty circle heads, slouchy torsos and long legs—hypnotize with their seeming “naturalness” and quirky gaits. Seen within the quotidian environment of suits and office buildings, the pair becomes lean, seductive ciphers for the rest of us working slobs.

The animations are part of “Animals, Buildings, Cars and People,” a survey of Opie’s sculpture consisting of nine different installations in City Hall Park and sponsored by the Public Art Fund. The remainder of the work is typical Opie—a chic, grown-up rendition of a Fisher Price “Little People” play set, complete with buildings, farm animals and generic humans. Flocks of flattened-out sheep, featureless animals and faceless women dot the park. Whether printed on large cutouts or simply reduced to their most basic three-dimensional shapes, the objects and creatures that inhabit Opie’s world are eminently likable, bland and suffer from no idiosyncrasies.

What can Opie’s inoffensive menagerie have to say to a site as socially and politically loaded as City Hall Park? Given that “Free Money on Park Avenue,” Tom Otterness’ cheeky bronze sculpture was located in one of the wealthiest zip codes on the planet, it’s difficult not to view the Public Art Fund’s selection and placement of Julian Opie as cynical. Opie goes a long way towards addressing this with “Sara” and “Bruce,” where animation relieves the monotony of his otherwise flat vision and makes room for an edgier interaction with the neighborhood.

Looking very much like over-sized video games or hip airport signage, the works seem to foretell the future of downtown Manhattan with the Department of Education as a favored fashion venue. One can almost hear the soundtrack: “I’m too sexy for Milan, too sexy for New York, too sexy for New York…”

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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