by David M. Roth
Ever notice how the titles of David Hockney exhibitions always seem to include the words “Bigger” or “Better?” If so, you might reasonably wonder: Could there be a less hyperbolic approach to exhibiting this celebrity artist? Turns out, there is. It’s called David Hockney’s Yosemite, and it focuses on one aspect of the 81-year-old artist’s multi-faceted career: the iPad drawings he made at the national park in 2010 and 2011. While almost all 25 of them appeared in A Bigger Exhibition, the exhaustive (and exhausting) 11-year survey mounted by the de Young in 2013, their reappearance at the Monterey Museum of Art (MMA) affords viewers the opportunity to examine — in-depth and without distraction – an undervalued piece of the artist’s digitally-assisted enterprise.
Part of the problem with presenting Hockney rests with the fact that he is prolific and relentlessly inventive. As a consequence, his shows are typically populated by so many works — and by so many monumental works — that it’s easy to lose sight of what made him great to begin with. Yosemite, which is comprised almost entirely of modestly scaled (37 x 28-inch) drawings made with an app called Brushes, brings the source of Hockney’s greatness – his exemplary drafting skills — to the fore. In them, he foregoes even a cursory nod to artists who earlier depicted this territory. Instead, he uses the app’s myriad effects to chart a fresh course. He casts Yosemite in the same resplendent colors (pink, mauve, magenta, eggplant, viridian, teal, mauve and chartreuse) that he used in his multi-canvas paintings of Yorkshire, overlaying skies, trees and mountains with inchoate marks that imbue each scene with a phantasmagorical aura. Branches, tree trunks and shrubs Hockney encircles with halo-like outlines akin to those seen in aboriginal paintings, and as a result, his views of Yosemite look a lot closer to the hallucinations described by Carlos Casteneda in The Teachings of Don Juan than to the pristine visions served up by Ansel Adams, the standard bearer for all things Yosemite.
Adams’ views are central to any appraisal of Hockney, as they have become so ingrained in public consciousness that it’s difficult to imagine them dislodged; yet by the middle of the 20th century, when the photographer’s popularity was at its peak, they had already become obsolete thanks to what the environmental activist Edward Abbey called “industrial tourism.” The MMA drives that point home in a companion exhibit (Yosemite Views: From Adams to Opie) that is, unsurprisingly, dominated by Adams. His high-contrast, black-and-white prints, along with works from other photographers and painters associated with California, trace the evolution of art representing Yosemite as it evolved from romantic portrayals of untrammeled wilderness to jaded views of the “post-nature” reality we now inhabit. Catharine Opie nails the latter with an 80 x 55-inch color photo of El Capitan, so blurry you have to squint to identify it.
Hockney’s plein air iPad drawings stake out something of a middle ground between those two positions. Several pictures include people, cars and signage, a tacit acknowledgment of the human incursions Abbey so detested. None of that, however, seemed to bother or distract Hockney. Seduced by the grandeur of the place, he allows his imagination to run wild, injecting into nearly every scene some jaw-dropping quirk. A jade-colored rendering of a waterfall spilling down a mountain has snaky patterns running up the sides that bring to mind kelp beds tossed by waves. What they’re doing on that mountainside is anyone’s guess, but so situated they
become points of interest in what would otherwise be a humdrum scene. Untitled No. 4 shows the sun shining through a grove of fuchsia-colored trees, erupting like a fireworks display. Untitled No. 15 pictures a group of people staring at distant peaks from an overlook. It’s the strangest work in the exhibition, and not because of how Hockney treats the landscape. It’s the people. Several are rendered as potato-shaped stick figures encased in what looks like bubble wrap, their heads and faces delineated by crude squiggles.
Missing from the exhibition are the 12-foot-tall iPad drawings that appeared at the de Young; here, the largest, most fully developed work, Yosemite 1, measures 78 x 70 inches and is comprised of four sheets of paper, conjoined. In this Hockney goes all-out. Rather than create a bare-bones sketch, as he does with some of the other drawings in this series, he builds this one from the ground up — in layers of intertwined foliage, the tonality of which makes the scene look tropical. It’s electrifying.
Part of what makes it so is the appearance of being backlit. Bright colors and the charge given off by the above-noted halos contribute to this effect, as do the pigments, which, by turns, mimic the look of watercolor, oil, ink, spray paint and chalk pastel. The result is a two-fold simulation: of the subject itself and the materials and techniques used to represent it – all of them summoned by a man running his thumbs across a glass screen.
Hockney can at times feel staid, even academic, particularly in his portraits and charcoal drawings. But the iPad drawings are something altogether different; they show him in full-throttle Pop mode, blurring the line between the fake and the real, insinuating himself deeper and deeper into the digital present.
* * *
Of equal interest is an exhibition of Matthew Barnes (1880 – 1951) whose expressionist nocturnes, located upstairs in a small alcove, you could easily overlook. Barnes, though he long ago fell into obscurity, was once hailed as San Francisco's leading modernist. His re-emergence, organized by the historian Susan Landauer for the Oceanside Museum of Art where the exhibition first appeared, is an event not to be missed. These are dark paintings of existential angst, musings of a death-obsessed artist who made a career out of picturing the void. Danger and instability, if not outright terror, are his themes. These he portrayed by painting variations on a single scene in which lone figures are seen standing near rickety shacks at the edge of a wave-lashed cliff, illuminated by moonlight leaking through blackened skies. “I have decided that man has a great battle against the elements,” Barnes told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1946. “That is why I paint houses on the edges of cliffs, ready to fall over.”
Barnes knew of what he spoke. He was born on the north coast of Scotland at around the time a legendary storm claimed the lives of 189 fishermen. He lost his brother to a typhoid epidemic and his father when he was 10, forcing him to quit school and work the night shift in a lace-curtain factory to support his mother. Those labors spawned the sensibility that would later define his art. “In the uncanny stillness between three and five in the morning,” he wrote in an unpublished autobiography, “I spent most of my leisure hours outdoors. I watched the magnificence of the ever-changing sky and the will-of-the-wisp lights that bobbed through the darkness from the lamps that the coal miners attached to their caps before leaving home to start walking to the deep coal pits.”
Landauer, in a masterful catalog essay, notes other factors: the Scottish landscape (“stark, barren, inhospitable to cultivation”); the “mercilessness” Calvinist faith of the Scots; and “the phantasmal and often sinister legends and folk stories with the frightful spirits and ghosts…that provided a bedrock for a national identity in Scottish literature.”
Barnes immigrated to New York in 1905 and found work as an ornamental plasterer. In his off hours he studied and copied Old Master paintings that he saw at the Metropolitan Museum. In 1906 he moved to San Francisco, drawn by the high wages promised to skilled laborers needed to rebuild the city after the earthquake. His early paintings betrayed the influence of Cezanne, but later shifted to modes that at different junctures call to mind Albert Pinkham Ryder, Edvard Munch, Edward Hopper, Chaïm Soutine and Mardsen Hartley.
Of the many excellent works in this show, three stand in memory. In Flats No. 42 (1929), a village on a hill is shown becoming unmoored while a figure on a precipice watches helplessly. The Hero Returns No. 165 (1945), a post-WWII nocturne painted in fever-dream shades of black and silver-white, pictures a pair of houses swept into the sea. In one, a figure prays for help; onshore, another figure gestures futilely. Land’s End No. 102 (1939) has a hobbled man precariously traversing a sea cliff. Never mind that the sky is pitch-black; near-shore waves illuminated by an unseen source show the threat posed and the darkness into which the victim might be drawn.
Unlike the plein air painters of his time, Barnes painted no odes to sunny California. His interior vision, rooted in Old World realities, was more closely attuned to that of Robinson Jeffers, the Monterey poet who spent his life writing chilly paeans to nature’s brutality. Today, however, Barnes’ paintings signal more than just an obsession with evil spirits and 19th-century notions of the sublime. They forecast a future that is all too near.
# # #
“David Hockney’s Yosemite” through August 4. “Yosemite Views: From Adams to Opie” to June 24. “Painting the Face of Infinity: Matthew Barnes and the World of Night” through August 18, 2019 @ Monterey Museum of Art.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.