David Hockney: A Bigger Vision
David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition at the de Young Museum
October 26, 2013 to January 20, 2014
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
David Hockney’s “A Bigger Exhibition” is expansive and multifaceted, driven by Hockney’s unflagging curiosity about picture-making and his relentless rhythm of production. Organized by the de Young Museum in cooperation with his personal curator, Gregory Evans, it follows up on the artist’s European show, “A Bigger Picture”, and features over 250 works in new and old media, many of large scale, completed since 2002.
Like Claude Monet, Hockney works in series; his paintings address time and optical truth, and they expand into large-scale decorations. Like Monet, he ignores the constraints of monocular perspective, and, just as Monet grew more ambitious over the turn of the past century, so Hockney aims to redefine painting for the digital age. Central to the show is his gallery of four nine-channel videos of Woldgate Woods near his home in Britain (2010-11) – a contemporary Orangerie, where viewers can follow, virtually, the road depicted in many of his paintings. A triumph of technology based in Renaissance optics is here displaced onto thirty-six different “eyes”, allowing the woods to unfold in different seasons in spectacular arrays of moving images. Viewers are forced to enact the multiple scans that make up our stable image of the visual field, much in the way Monet forced them to combine the retinal stimuli that supply its color.
Hockney questions not just the fixation of Western art on the single vanishing point but the look of “reality” it engenders. His “Great Wall”, a project from 2002 reconstructed in the exhibition, juxtaposes color reproductions of European portraits from 1300 to 1900, tracking the emergence of lens-based vision. Documenting painters’ experiments with the concave mirror and camera lucida, Hockney demonstrates the extent of its influence on painting and, he argues, on contemporary mass culture. In his own paintings here, he continues to move away from the photographic finish of his early portraits. Marks and gestures predominate, enlarged and stylized, the legacy of van Gogh, who sought to wrest a personal vision from direct encounters with his subjects.
Hockney likewise bases his work on direct observation, from pocket-size sketchbooks to the large, composite canvases completed on special easels outdoors. They call to mind the more restrained but intensely rendered panoramas of his countryman, Rackstraw Downes, who explores the curvature of the perceptual field with a photographic level of detail, but eschews the camera and technology in general. Hockney, on the other hand, relishes his enlistment of the iPhone and iPad in subverting the Western version of reality. His digital drawings extend the urbane informality and witty observations of his sketchbooks into uncharted electronic territory, where they can be animated and enlarged. Displayed on screens, they’re magically luminous, their dematerialized calligraphy sometimes dancing disconnected from the image, sometimes reinforcing it with emphatic highlights and shadows. Animated, they reveal their successive transformations; the process of revision is open-ended, and the “true” look of the world is always subject to reinterpretation.
Hockney refers to these works as drawings, perhaps to acknowledge their provisional status, yet they also involve their own sensibility, a tension between intimacy and detachment. There’s something similar in Chuck Close’s use of the photograph as a tool in his portraits, employing the gridded image to structure his expressionistic mark making and keep it detached from the sitter. The iPhone portraits bring Hockney closer to his subjects, eliminating the respectful social distance he maintains in his paintings, and they encourage freer mark making, yet when presented on screens or in high-resolution prints, these exploratory marks, the fluid strokes and linear scribbles that can lend them surprising density, remain in the virtual realm. Similar marks in the paintings are more physically immediate, even if they become increasingly stylized in his larger landscapes.
Hockney presents two suites of iPad landscapes enlarged into multi-panel compositions, where they assume a different character, like Alex Katz’s enlargements of his sketches into sharply focused images that celebrate their own artifice. One series of “tree tunnels”, related to the multi-channel video, documents the everyday beauty of nature, but their high-keyed colors, reflective mud puddles and stylized splashes of raindrops seem imported from Japanese animation. In the second series, images of Yosemite veiled in clouds allude to Chinese landscape paintings, and the enlarged gestural marks bring wondrous intimacy to the sublime vistas of the valley. Like both Monet and van Gogh, Hockney finds in Asian art, with its calligraphy, free use of perspective and flat areas of color, a means to liberate painting from Renaissance conventions.
Well before these digital experiments, an exceptional expansion was underway in Hockney’s landscape paintings. Beginning with his return to Yorkshire in 2004, his gestural marks become more urgent and also more differentiated as he tackles roadside vegetation and the close-up articulation of trees. There’s an increasing stylization to the large paintings, as though in groping for the look of the landscape he’s drawing on his experience in set design. Tree tunnels, compositions with groves of trees in reverse perspective, and fantastical spring blossoms are increasingly regimented, clumped together, with differentiated colors for branches and leaves, and dots and hatches for ground cover and bark.
The largest work in the show, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (Twenty Eleven), Version 3, further isolates and stylizes the marks representing different sorts of leaves and flowers. Like the backdrop for a ballet, it also recalls the Symbolist landscapes of Maurice Bernard, as well as Japanese screens and William Morris’s wallpaper designs. Hockney aims for visual immersion through sheer scale, but its flattened shapes still keep us at a distance and don’t engage us as fully in virtual experience as the high-resolution videos.
In terms of immersion, it’s difficult for the hand to compete with electronic media. Technology is enormously seductive, and the receding landscapes of Hockney’s videos generate effects reminiscent of video games; could viewers be offered their own controllers? For all its ambition, Hockney’s exploration of electronic media remains at a relatively basic level, open to the everyday viewer – as opposed, for example, to Peter Campus’s slow-motion renderings of changing, pixillated colors in what amount to digitized neo-Impressionist paintings, or to Bill Viola’s rendering of Pontormo’s “Visitation”.
Engaging the audience is Hockney’s subject in A Bigger Message (2010), a thirty-panel reinterpretation of Claude Lorrain’s “Sermon on the Mount” (1656). Implicit is Hockney’s own sense of mission, his call for “wider vantages”. Everything centers on Christ on the distant crest, around which multitudes assemble for access to the “message”. His progressive re-workings of this painting recall Picasso’s riffs on earlier masterpieces. There’s even a cubist version, but Hockney doesn’t press it very far; he’s more about expansion than about compressing multiple views into a single image. With increasing exaggeration in color, the later versions take the painting in his own post-photographic direction. The scene becomes a stage set, a psychedelic media event, with a vermillion mount, and whimsical fortifications arising in the middle distance. If in Claude’s era, oil painting served to make visions of distant times and supernatural events convincingly real, here painting is absorbed into a larger spectacle.
Coming of age in the heyday of Warhol and popular visual culture, Hockney inhabits a media-saturated world and assumes a populist stance: if there’s no truthful image, just multiple views, our world image must evolve through broad cultural participation. As poet Charles Olson observed, “polis is eyes”. Rethinking photography opens a field for individual play, and Hockney makes a case for painting, liberated from monocular vision, to assume an important role. Like Dziga Vertov, who created a Cubist cinema in the 1920s, Hockney proposes that we also use technology in a radical democratization of image making. The Jugglers (2012), an eighteen-screen projection near the end of the show, provides a model of playful and inventive social exchange, with its ongoing interplay of random displacements and boundary crossings. Hockney’s appeal, arising from his appreciation of nature’s attractions and his empathy with friends and society, is ultimately sustained through this empowerment of his audience.