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David Hockney @ de Young Museum

Woldsgate Woods, 6 & 9 November 2006, oil on 6 canvas 72 x 144"
 
By now, most of the art-savvy public knows that the de Young Museum has mounted a sensational David Hockney show that includes paintings, drawings, “cubist” videos and groundbreaking works executed on the iPhone and iPad.  At 75, Hockney is more vital than ever.  This exhibition marks his emergence from what curators are calling one of the most productive periods in his career.  Evidence of that output – from 2002 to the present — is on view through January 20 in A Bigger Exhibition.  It’s the largest show ever awarded by the museum to a single artist in its 119-year history.  Curated and designed by Gregory Evans, the show covers 18,000 square feet over two floors and includes more than 300 works.  But size, contrary to what the title might imply, is not what this exhibition is about.  It is about human vision, specifically, the ways Hockney has attempted to enlarge it.  
 

Conventional views of the world, whether supplied by painting, photography or cinema, have always frustrated him.  In response, Hockney has used a wide variety of technologies and media to expand it.  One of the most potent salvos in this exhibition-cum manifesto is Seven Yorkshire Landscapes.  It consists of 18 video monitors in the museum’s first-floor lobby, each of which displays moving fragments of a different outdoor panorama. The effect is akin to traveling through the English countryside in a slow-moving vehicle outfitted with a huge partitioned window.  Short and color-saturated,

Stills from 4 of  7 Yorkshire Landscapes, 2011, digital videos synched and presented on (18) 55-inch NEC screens to comprise a single artwork, 81 x 287 inches overall 

These videos recall, at first glance, moving versions of Hockney’s Polaroid grids from the ‘80s: each an orderly right-to-left procession of neatly segmented views.  Or so we think.  Look closely and you’ll see trees splitting apart and reconnecting, swatches of foliage moving at speeds different from those in adjacent frames, as well as unexpected things, like a background that remains static while everything else in front of it moves. These aren’t just technological somersaults.  They’re Hockney demonstrating that consciousness is a bit like a dog’s nose: a roving free-range sensor that catalogs the world by instinct.  Needless to say, this is not how art typically represents reality.

This exhibition, versions of which have appeared in London, Bilbao and Cologne, shows Hockney in peak form.  Immediate stand-outs are the large-scale composite plein air paintings and iPad drawings.  Made in East Yorkshire and in Yosemite, they form this exhibition’s conceptual and aesthetic core and lean heavily on Hockney’s estimable drafting skills, represented here by a large array of charcoal drawings.  The latter come off as overworked and fussy.  But when recast as paintings, which Hockney treats more expressively than anything he creates with a pen, pencil or charcoal stick, the acuity behind the drawings turns magical, almost visionary.  We see it in monumentally scaled works comprised of multiple canvases painted in strong, supersaturated colors, Hockney’s nod to Matisse.  In that regard, you may think him over the top, and that is definitely the case.  A video of him making these works shows East Yorkshire to be a verdant landscape: fields of flaming yellow mustard; thickets, hedgerows, grasslands and brambles dowsed in ravishing shades of green; blowsy blue skies; and all manner of candy-colored blossoms.  But nothing quite as outrageous as Hockney portrays. For his followers that will not come as a surprise. Exaggeration and altered perspective have long been Hockney's portals to a bigger vision.   
 
Bigger Trees Near Water, Winter 2008, oil on 9 canvases, 108 x 144"

The most powerful examples are clustered at the far end of the basement gallery.  May Blossom on the Roman Road, with its strong shadows, Van Gogh swirls in the sky and pointillistically daubed flowers feels almost hallucinatory.  So does Bigger Trees Nearer Warter, where a towering block of bare branches, framed by converging roads, assumes architectural proportions that stop just shy of physical intimidation. Woldsgate Woods, 6 & 9 November 2006, a six-canvas painting in which the earth is painted persimmon

orange, combines views of the same area recorded at different times of day, resulting in shadows that fall in directions and at angles you would not see in a picture designed to encompass a smaller chunk of time.  It is but one example of many such paintings that deal with time and how the brain might register it if humans weren’t burdened with what Hockney calls a Cyclopean viewpoint: the form of binocular vision that affords us the rough equivalent of what can be seen through a 50-millimeter camera lens.  

Hockney considers it a built-in form of myopia. Perception and memory, he says, are not a function of what a camera (or our eyes) can record in a single, static moment, but rather, a composite of what we take in when our head and eyes swivel from side-to-side.  Those views — macro and micro, short and long — are what we see in our mind’s eye.  If there’s a gap between our mental view and what art typically delivers, it’s because we’re seeing too little.  Art, he argues, should slow us down; it should allow us to see what lies before us. 
 
Woldgate Woods, Nov. 7, 2010, digital videos, synchronized and presented on nine 55-inch NEC screens to comprise a single artwork, 81 x 143 1/2" overall
 
A four-part video installation, Woldsgate Woods, does exactly that.  It was made with nine cameras mounted on a car driven at a crawl down a tree-canopied lane.  Hockney calls it “The Tunnel,” and it appears in many paintings and drawings in the show.  The area holds special significance: As a teenager, Hockney performed farm labor nearby, and it was there that he had his first sexual encounters.  Each segment of the installation consists of nine video monitors stacked in a 3 x 3 grid.  The projections appear on adjacent and opposing walls, enabling viewers to spin a circle and see the same scene unfolding in different seasons.  Dissolving and recomposing on the fly, they enlarge our view and at the same time regulate the speed at which we “move” through it. There’s suspense, but little actually happens.  So when a clump of snow falls from a tree branch, a bird flies through a scene or a car passes in the opposite direction, the effect is dramatic.  It’s one of the loveliest, most spellbinding video installations I have ever seen.  
 
There are times when Hockney’s yearning for a bigger picture works against him. It happens with The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011, a 32-canvas oil painting that runs 32 linear feet.  The colors are saccharine; the overall depiction, Disneyesque, its falling petals a caricature reminiscent of high school stage sets.  The good news is that it’s flanked on three sides by some of the most innovative, most technologically adventuresome pictures Hockney has made: 12 iPad drawings, each measuring 93 by 70 inches. If you 

2 January from the 12-part iPad drawing series, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011, Version 3, 2011-13, printed on four sheets of paper, 93 x 70" overall 

think his large oils evince a visionary quality, these are exponentially richer.  They capture spring with preternatural resplendence.  The colors are massively exaggerated – over sweetened fuchsias, magentas, chartreuses and the like — but the hyperbole seems acceptable, even welcome.  Why?  It’s the iPad.  It perfectly captures the movements of Hockney’s hand while cloaking the physical evidence of it.  That, you might think, would be grounds for dismissal, but it is not.  The appeal has to do with the tension between the virtual and the real, and with all of the jangly lines and hyperkinetic marks that give off the energy of light contrails captured in a time-lapse photo.  For an artist long accustomed to working with brushes and pigment, Hockney seems to have had little trouble squeezing every last pixel-droplet of possibility from the new media; he bends its limitations, whatever they are, to his own ends. 

In A Bigger Yosemite, where the pictures measure nine feet tall and the colors are appropriately more muted, the textures of his marks and line are as wide-ranging as the views depicted. They run from crude to highly granular.  Thumb and finger smudges, for example, define mountain peaks and gorges; pinpoint lines make pine needles glow like illuminated Christmas ornaments.  Other electronic sleights of hand convincingly mimic chalk pastel. All totaled, they enable Hockey to turn Yosemite’s well-known splendors — its misty waterfalls, towering peaks and flowering meadows –into arguments for a fresh approach to image making. 
 
Perhaps the most greatest liberties Hockney takes involve historical works: Claude Lorrain’s The Sermon on the Mount, Picasso’s Guernica and Goya’s The Third of May 1808.  Lorrain’s Sermon shows Jesus preaching from Mount Tabor surrounded by the Twelve Apostles.  Hockney’s version does, too, except that the Holy Land is a turquoise-tinged tropical paradise and Mount Tabor is painted to look like a flaming red phallus.  Hockney calls it A Bigger Message.  In The Massacre and the Problems of Depiction, Hockney places Picasso’s tortured figures before Goya’s firing squad, splicing together scenes from two paintings and attaching to it, another framed watercolor panel in which he appears as a photographer.  It’s the first picture we see upon entering the show, and its placement there is significant.  It conveys that photography has long played a critical role of Hockney's thinking and that his inquiries necessarily entail a certain amount of art-historical voyeurism, if not hubris. 
 
The Massacre and the Problem of Depiction, 2003, Watercolor on 7 sheets of paper, 56 1/2 x 72 1/4"
 
Over two visits, I spent more than five hours looking at this show, and it’s as if I’ve only scratched the surface.  There is much more to be savored.  The dazzling watercolors Hockney made in Iceland, which are among his first, stand out as yet another example of his ability to master new media quickly.  There are cubist photo collages and Polaroid montages from the 1980s; several dozen portraits; sketchbooks; a bank of videos that show him making iPhone drawings; as well as the first-ever installation of The Great Wall.  It shows hundreds of reproductions of historic paintings spread across two walls, supporting his thesis (detailed in Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters), that artists as far back as 1430 used optical devices. 
 
All testify to Hockney’s abiding interest in perception and his ceaseless quest to expand it.  The inventiveness he brings to the task constitutes a high-water mark in the history of such efforts — proof that the search for new ways of seeing remains a centerpiece of artistic striving, if not human nature itself. 
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
“David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition” @ the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum through January 20, 2014.  

 

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