It was love at first sight: in 1979, as a young art student, I, like many others of my generation, were captivated by David Hockney’s supreme draughtsmanship and uncluttered painterly portals onto a cloudless Californian lifestyle.
But a lot has happened since then; Tracey Emin, digital photography, tablet devices, Creative Suite©, Instagram©, not to mention Barthes’ Camera Lucida - and a whole lot more. To place things into a proper perspective, over the past five decades, Hockney has always been an early adopter of new technologies, bringing both his sensibility and style to acrylic, Polaroid© and digital imaging by turns.
When Hockney impressively rendered the implausible frozen moment in ‘The Bigger Splash’ of 1967, the controls were, even then, set fair for his fearless forays into the contested pictorial space between analog and digital – all he really needed was for the technology to catch up!
The shows at Annely Juda/L.A. Louver are based around what Hockney describes as ‘the void’ between the convention of perspective, the image surface and the viewer, and though his depiction of this perceptual disjunction may lack the poignancy of Barthes or the incisiveness of Sontag, it also comes with an understanding of the act of seeing along with an understanding of that act embodied in a practice which remains pointedly distinct from any other living artist.
Lest we forget: beyond the words and the technologies, Mr. Hockney still touches paint to canvas with a consummate brilliance that can only be sustained by the combined qualities of determination, practice and talent. This may of course be a statement of the blooming obvious, but even on a bad day, David Hockney remains one of the best painters England has ever exported.
But beyond sentiment and back to the present, Hockney’s latest show is fascinating for a number of reasons; essentially he is attempting to unravel, on our behalf, the conventions of seeing, painting and photography that have become tangled through the convergence of digital and analogue image-making.
The typical portraits that comprise just less than half of the works in the show are apparently a foretaste of some 70 painted portraits that will be shown at major venues next year, and many of these are classic Hockney; stunning lines of brushwork against flattened slabs of intense colour. This juxtapositional use of paint has the effect of rendering the paintings expressive and expressionless at the same time. The portraits offer not only an insight into the artist’s vision, but also an incidental snapshot of his encounters with individuals in his social and professional orbit. Aesthetically and metaphorically, the deadpan Liquitex© flatness of Hockney’s painting is perfectly suited to the laconic depiction of his models and a sense, not of timelessness, but of subjects slipping into time.
I spoke to one of the individuals who recently sat for Hockney, and he vividly portrayed the encounter as ‘like working with a true method actor’, describing the intensity with which the artist produced the portrait, working with great verve and without breaks, before sitting entirely spent at the easel. These are not portraits that are not intended to immortalize the sitter; Hockney’s vernacular serves to flatten the characters along with the colour and his use of portraiture appears as but a device for enabling him to paint; to paint without being particularly troubled by capturing the personalities of those who are in front of him at the time. Clearly this is not the same kind of ‘sitting’ captured in the iconic ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ of 1970, and painting clearly prevails over subject.
The ‘cracked actors’ I speak of in Hockney’s show refer more literally to most of the remaining inhabited works here which offer lightly fractured views of persons engaged in a variety of activities; playing board games, sitting around talking, and individuals in social gatherings presumably within the context of one of Hockney’s studios. The digital photographic montages that oppose the above Pop Art painterly portraits confound and complicate, but are also compelling in their impossibility; the photographs offer ludicrous simultaneity in terms of time and picture plane(s), whilst the multi-facetted photographic perspectives dislocate and discomfit the certainty of ones centrality as a viewer.
As long as 30 years ago, the artist was experimenting with post-cubist Polaroid© collages (‘Joiners’), but the emphasis then was on connecting, whereas now, the photoshopped unity of surface lightly masks an underlying, and somewhat disturbing, fragmentation of place, person and perception.
Within these photographic ‘environments’ there are subsets of other works that co-locate photography and digital painting on the same printed surface, with Hockney retouching and interpolating in (digital) paint the information lost in the process of editing, translation and application. The momentary effect of this is not unlike instances in the works of Richard Hamilton, but Hockney is playing so many games with this show, this may conceivably be a deliberate reference; further nods to the art historical abound, Cezanne’s Card Players and Van Gogh’s ‘Chair with Pipe’ through to the near-Salcedo installation implied/impaled by comparison with Hockney’s ‘Sparer Chairs’ - for me, one of the stand-out works in this show.
In summary though, there is no implication here that this show is some kind of Curate’s Egg; it is altogether interesting, with never a dull moment, never a sense that the artist is recumbent on the laurels and always the sense that he is striving for more, for better, and driving hard to understand how human perception sits alongside the sensory extensions offered by technology. After spending an hour here, I just knew it wasn’t enough.
David Hockney's works are on exhibit at Annely Juda Fine Art, London, England, from 15 May to 27 June 2015 and at L.A. Louver, Venice Ca, Usa, from from 15 July to 19 September 2015.