David Hockney: A bigger picture, review by Phoebe Dickerson
David Hockney apparently likes to tell his Californian friends that he is merely in Yorkshire ‘on location’. He will, he insists, return to the land of sun and swimming pools and vast open spaces that has been his home and inspiration for so much of his life. In the meantime, he is painting, drawing and filming Yorkshire - capturing the changing seasons and shifting light in and around his Bridlington studio - with characteristic and seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm. While the RA’s exhibition of Hockney’s landscapes has been heralded by some as a kind of ‘Return of the Native’ (‘David Hockney, National Treasure’ is celebrating the English landscapes of his boyhood’, The Economist), Hockney does not emerge as an artist, who - back where he started - has found what he was looking for and can now rest. Instead, this show stands testament to Hockney’s illimitable energy and verve, his thirst (among fields and woods with which he has become so familiar) for the here-and-now-ness of life. This exhibition celebrates Hockney leaping always at the new; painting the first tickles of Queen Anne’s Lace, or rushing indefatigably to capture the flowering of the hawthorn bushes that happens each year, one week in May.
Filling ten rooms, including the vast and intimidating Gallery III, the exhibition comprises of vast oil paintings, the 52 works in ‘The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire, in 2011’ (51 of which are iPad drawings: the 52nd is a 15 metre oil painting), a wall of 18 screens showing footage from 18 cameras to extraordinary hypnotic effect, and an adventurous project in homage to Claude Lorrain’s ‘The Sermon on the Mount’. Oh, and a wall of water colours, a room filled with sketchbooks (each displayed with a monitor above it, on which the pages open in a slideshow), another small room crammed with 12 ft high iPad drawings of Yosemite, a scattering of exuberant, velvety charcoal drawings and a number of earlier paintings. Such a list may seem fatuous, but how else to express the sheer variety and the extent of Hockney’s experimentation with subject and medium, the fearless delight with which he pushes himself over and again’
Unlike so many of his contemporaries, who continue to produce re-mastered versions of earlier work (Peter Blake and Alex Katz spring to mind), Hockney’s artistic pursuits and methods are always changing. Most obvious perhaps, is his embrace of the iPad. There is nothing gimmicky about this. He is not afraid of admitting that something is fun and playful, or that it makes his life easier. I was struck by how textural the ‘Arrival of Spring’ drawings were: how much the surface of each image leaps and flickers with colour. What is perhaps most striking is how distinctively Hockney they are. The same goes for the watercolours: he is bold and economical with line, and he has, unlike so many watercolourists, no fear of the white paper. In ‘Trees & Puddles, East Yorkshire’ the white of the paper is left to glow through the clouds of liquid colour in the sky and to stand, unadulterated, as puddles.
The scale of the oil paintings is, of course, also a bold move. Where the subject of his Grand Canyon paintings, some composed of 60 canvases, seemed to demand a grand scale, Thixendale Trees and Woldgate woods call less conspicuously perhaps for such gargantuan portraits. And yet - in their scale - they pull you into their dense thickets and mists of colour. Again, Hockney leaves himself no room for hesitation or correction in the immediacy with which he pulls the broad, bright oil colours across his canvases: it is clear that he has considered his subject and the endeavor of depicting it at length by the time he streaks his colours across the canvas, or agitates his thumb across the tactile, immediately responsive screen of an iPad.
Hockney delights in the Chinese saying: ‘Painting is an old man’s art’. The more you live - he explains - the more you ‘accumulate’ experiences and, consequently, the more you see. Hockney’s is an industrious pair of eyes, and the sense of accumulated visions is everywhere central to the works in this exhibition: Hockney knows the seasons, these hedgerows and thickets, these lakes and shadows and hawthorn blossoms. He knows how to convey in robust oils the pinch of mist in the morning (Woldgate Mist, November, 2005) or the sweep of autumn sunlight in loose and vigorous charcoal. He works quickly - you can feel it in the pull of the brush or the scribbling ticks and squiggling buzzes of his iPad drawings - but all the unstudied immediacy of his works is enabled by his unrivalled perceptive acuity.
In a recent review, Brian Sewell stated that ‘no one who knows anything of Yorkshire’s wolds has ever seen them clad in the ghastly gaudiness of Hockney’s vision’. I suspect Hockney in turn would contest the variety of verisimilitude that Sewell appears to be seeking - it seems to accord with what Hockney refers to as ‘the optical projection of nature’ not nature but its two dimensional image’. Hockney does not paint the world: he paints his act of looking at it. He has never stopped questioning how we see things, hence his career long ‘love-hate relationship’ with the single eye of the camera and this exhibition’s 18 camera footage - Hockney’s first foray into the moving image. Hockney’s aim is not to translate each and every hue into its pictorial counterpart. Instead, he looks at Yorkshire through eyes that absorbed all the colours and spirit Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, painting a thing not merely as we see it, but to show the viewer how it can be seen.