HOCKNEY: SIX DECADES OF REMARKABLE VERSATILITY

Antonia Osgood, February 2017

I had dismissed him as a whimsical landscape painter who indulged in colour, but I was forced to reassess my assumptions. 

Despite promptly arriving at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, I was ushered to the back of a long queue of ticketless people. I was not one of 20,000 who bought an advance ticket (a new record for Tate) to Hockney’s current retrospective at Tate Britain. I eventually joined a crowd of voracious Hockney viewers, ignorant of the fact I had just secured entry at the fastest-selling exhibition in the gallery’s history.

 

Curator Chris Stephens utilises the first room to demonstrate the varied manner in which Hockney constructs images. I was confronted with several contrasting portraits; some laboriously rendered in detail, others expressively handled. ‘You were so wrong about Hockney,’ the walls screamed.

 

Concerned with the illusion of space and perspective. Play Within a Play, 1963, depicts a figure tragically trapped within a painting, his body pressed up against an actual sheet of plexiglass stuck to the canvas. 

Hockney presents the figure as a contained entity within a work, exposing the fakery of rendering three-dimensionality upon a flat medium. In several of his paintings, a curtain stands as a motif for Hockney’s interest in reality and the void between audience and subject.  He suggests painting is a mere mirage, a play on the viewer’s senses. For example, 4 Blue Stools, 2014, a photographic work, is a surreal snapshot of gallery-goers surrounded by paintings of gallery-goers.

 

The rest of the show is a chronological walk through six decades of Hockney’s artistic career. As I journeyed from room to room I felt immersed in a visual diary. As Hockney shifted geographically, so did his style. From his work as a student at the Royal Collage of Art (1959-1962), to his travels abroad and then back and forth between California and his native Yorkshire, each room took a creative swerve, a shift in formal attack and presence. Meditative Hollywood scenes were juxtaposed against restless country landscapes. There seemed to be a poignant dialogue between these two opposing worlds.

 

Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, 1966 presents Hockney’s Californian boyfriend from the rear, quite literally. The figure’s nude body, half drawn out of the pool, is starkly organic against the abstract geometry of the patio. The surface feels activated from the meandering rhythm of water ripples. Similarly, these wiggling marks feature in his wild Yorkshire landscapes. Winding roads invite our eyes into the dream-like setting. Van-Gogh-inspired vegetation anthropomorphise into giant green monsters. These works are huge, vivid and hypnotising.

George Harrison Taj Mahal Self-Portrait

1966

© Harrison Family

On several occasions Hockney made me chuckle. Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style, 1961, depicts a lone naked figure sorrowfully contemplating his existence.

A giant Typhoo tea packet-shaped canvas frames his ephemeral presence. It’s a weird mirage from a tea lover’s dream. Hockney claims he was so focused on accurately rendering the perspective of the painting that he misspelled tea as ‘TAE’ on the side of the packet. Weaving narrative into commonplace imagery, he successfully captures our imagination and disables our pre-conceived ideas of still life and portraiture.

 

I was moved when I encountered two childish figures, bound tenderly by the words ‘We 2 boys together clinging’. Crude and graffiti-like application of paint exudes defiance. Laced with his attitude and desires, it was boldly created during a time when homosexuality was still illegal in England. The title not only references a line from Walt Whitman’s poetry, but also ‘Two Boys Cling to Cliff All Night’, which hints at Hockney’s crush on the singer Cliff Richard.  

I was slightly horrified to encounter the room devoted to Hockney’s iPad drawings. It was like seeing Picasso with Instagram. 

David Hockney, Outpost Drive, Hollywood, 1980. Acrylic paint on canvas, 1524 x 1524 mm. Private collection, Leslee & David Rogath  © David Hockney

David Hockney, Ossie Wearing a Fairisle Sweater, 1970. Coloured pencil and crayon on paper, 430 x 355 mm. Private collection, London © David Hockney

David Hockney, Domestic Scene, Los Angeles, 1963. Oil paint on canvas, 1530 x 1530 mm.

Private collection © David Hockney

The highlight for me was experiencing Woldgate Woods, 2010, a stunning high-definition post-cubist movie. Nine video cameras mounted onto his Land Rover are driven slowly up the road.

 

We experience the woods through a 3 by 3 grid, each monitor capturing a piece of the landscape in a different season. I felt immersed in a surreal memory, a meditation on time, space and the beauty of the changing seasons.

 

Inspired by Picasso’s multifaceted approach to art making, Hockney was never satisfied by one mode of representation. His quest to explore the world around him culminated in not just paintings, but drawings, photographs and digital work. I am proud to say I am a reformed critic of Hockney.

David Hockney, Play Within a Play, 1963. Oil on canvas and plexiglass, 72 x 78”.

Private collection c/o Connery & Associates © David Hockney

As someone who dislikes our increasingly digitalised world I decided to overlook these works and went back to admire his drawings made with ink and coloured crayons. However, I later learnt that Hockney enjoyed drawing on an iPad as he could examine the technical process of his mark making. The device records and plays back the history of each line like a moving image. Having a chance to reflect now, I think my reaction was too hasty. Perhaps I need to accept iPad drawing as a new art form.

 

I noticed Hockney’s curiosity with movement. In the past, he criticised photography: ‘its all right, if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralysed Cyclops.’ Toying with cubist aesthetics, his photographic work is an attempt to resolve the discrepancy between two-dimensional representation of our three-dimensional world. Overlapping and piecing together fragments of images, Hockney crafts an overall impression from multiple perspectives.

© 2019 by Assemblage Magazine.

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