WHEN YOU STAND -in awe- in front on any of David Hockney’s magnificent paintings, that have morphed from abstract to naturalist over the sixty odd years covered by the Tate’s well curated retrospective, two, interrelated, aspects stand out. Every painting seems to be the end result of the artist’s triumph in problem solving…just how much information does the artist need to offer; how should the perspective be treated, in order to make the viewer complicit with his point of view?
These seems to me to be two of the elements that make a Hockney, a Hockney. That contrast between the fussy chiaroscuro of one element, say a shag carpet, where you can almost feel the bristles under foot, or the almost photographic landscape that contrasts with the very ‘painterly’ patterned images of the pool, or that droop of flowers that seem to be the only living element in the room, with the almost casually drawn brushstroke indicating a furrow in the English countryside, or the patterned flatness of the swimming pool. His images deliver with precision just the right amount of visual information to communicate. The subtle balance of styles express a quality of very deliberate emotionless-ness. His blank figures are placed in the frame of the paintings like objects (had Hockney moved the man an inch to his right the mood of tranquility and harmony – seems like a cold if well-balanced relationship – would have been shattered). They create that very distinct Hockney world. It is a world of stillness and silence; one that’s not a frozen moment in time, where there’s a past and a future, like say the frozen turn of the girl with the pearl necklace, but one that’s outside of time itself.
(Hockney is preoccupied with the role of time in art, from these moments of timelessness to some of his earlier art-faxes, when he faxed an entire exhibition from LA to Brazil whose idea revolved around the passage of time…and the problem/solution of how to show it…to the last room in the exhibition in which we see his -pad drawings in the process of being constructed in time)
It’s as though these paintings are invitations to both ponder the meaning of time and to leave its flux… to lift away from time-bound ‘reality’ to enter into a world where all that matters is the relationship of the elements within the painting. It is the artist’s seductive siren call to draw us out of ourselves into his head…into, as it were, his frame of mind.
There’s no question that he constructs his works so that you’re guided, very deliberately in how to view the work. Every painting is part of a mission in helping viewers learn how to observe…freed from the distractions of ‘life’ and the destructions of time.
Let’s look at some of his work.
This is one of his latest, and much heralded, massive paintings of the countryside near his home and studio. At first glance, it’s pretty clear that it’s an inviting country path…the light plays upon the leaves in such a way to suggest not only the time of day, but even the season and temperature. The artist has worked out how to communicate this in the most efficient manner (there’s no pretence of photographic realism here…the bold pop art brush strokes and primary colours do just about enough). It’s very easy and tempting for an artist to be defeated, overwhelmed by the landscape before him so that all the viewer sees is the landscape. Hockney breaks the painting into six quadrants. He could have simply stretched a large canvas. But the solution to the problem facing him, and his choice, was to present the massive scene in smaller frames; and each frame has its own visual integrity.
The artist’s invitation isn’t to ‘look at a pretty landscape’; it’s to stop and think about how we see things…how we observe the outside world and how our (Hockney) guided observation of this painting creates a kind of symbiosis with the artist’s own observing eye. John Berger in his famous series of essays, “Ways of Seeing” noted, “The relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled”.
To Hockney, to see is to know. But to really “see”, you can’t be overwhelmed…you have to take control. Hockney takes control by breaking up his line of sight into relevant interacting quadrants.
Take this one. Here the artist is suggesting multiple, almost cubist perspectives, distorting the perspective and dramatizing the colour contrasts, to ‘get the full picture’. It’s as though the visually garrulous artist wants to cram as much into the frame so that you can experience with him the excitement, the sensory overload, the chaotic jubilation he must have felt standing on that gallery.
In one of his (not dissimilar) earlier, more abstract works, he arranged multiple elements across a deliberately blank looking canvas. Here’s a barely sketched, almost anecdotal image of a young man walking away from some sort of drawing of an Egyptian icon above which two green stalactites of paint hang down. Just what do they all mean? Are they symbols that we need to understand to ‘get the full picture’? Maybe. What we experience when we engage with this painting is an insight into the artist’s own interior monologue, his own scatter of thoughts and images. This is a painting that, to me, tries to pin down memory.
As indeed, they all are. Perhaps more so than many other artists, a retrospective of Hockney feels like an intrusion into a private diary…from his hot, horney homosexual portraits in LA to the later reimagined, modernized romanticism of his visually lyrical landscapes. Clement
Greenberg wrote that painting was “ineluctably about painting”. With Hockney, you can’t separate the man from the painting…from the life lived in time, to the observation and introspection of that life outside of it.
And as we learn to observe through Hockney, we learn to observe ourselves