Sunday, 29 January 2012

David Hockney, A Bigger Picture

In the first room of A Bigger Picture, the Hockney show now on at the RA are two of the artist's student works, street views in the style of the Euston Road School: muted, muddy colours in thick paint, a heavy louring atmosphere filling the canvas. Everything that follows represents a flight from this beginning: the drab enclosed world of the industrial town is exchanged for the vast spaces of California, with its warm colours and clear vistas; cloudy skies give way to endless blue space; paint becomes lighter and flatter, and the works themselves become vast in scale. Canvases are joined together, as the scene relentlessly escapes confinement. The 1980s landscapes from America are full of the passions that Hockney is pursuing to the present day. The huge size of works like Grand Canyon, Looking North, September 1982 recalls the mountainscapes of the American sublime; but there is a poppy, Californian cool in there too, a delight that comes from a flight from introspection. They do not seem to be referring to heroic transports in the soul of the artist; instead they offer worlds to get lost in, absorbed by.

I remember watching a programme on Cubism many years ago, in which Hockney remarked on how the Cubist experiment had freed Western art from the tyranny of single-point perspective, introduced in fourteenth-century Florence. Throughout this show we see him exploring the possibilities of looking at the same scene from different points of view. From Nichols Canyon (1980) through to the various depictions of 'The Tunnel' in paintings of Woldgate woods, the landscapes do not conform to one viewpoint: different views coalesce in one image, taking away the privileged observing position of single-point perspective and making us part of the scene, not external to it. There are no figures in the paintings because we are ourselves the figures, moving around withing their shifting space. Then there are shifts in temporal perspective too. Some scenes, like the views of Yorkshire made when the artist was driving daily to visit a dying friend, are not the record of a single moment in time, but an accumulated impression built up from various journeys. The same scene or motif - there is a tremendous sequence of images of a tree stump - is painted across the seasons, drawn from life and then recreated in the memory, where colours can take on the intense luminosity of Winter Trees (2009, reproduced above). All the time the artist and viewer is moving, looking again, reassembling the scene. as well as the multiple perspecdtives in space and time, there is the further variety of spectacle offered by different media: drawing, photography, watercolour, oil, film, the ipad. There is a tension running through the show: a painting fixes something in colour, yet Hockney is fascinated by the way in which Nature cannot be formulated and is constantly changing. It is a story of process over product, of art constantly trying to keep up with its subject.

A Bigger Picture is a huge show, and perhaps is like a film that's half an hour too long. After the Los Angeles room and the first set of Yorkshire paintings, I found the wall of watercolours less engaging, more like exercises than performances.  The reworking of Claude's Sermon on the Mount was an interesting view of the artist's preoccupations with space, but seemed rather dry compared to the gorgeous depictions of woods and hawthorn blossom. I thought the drawings might have been given some more space: the charcoal sketches of the tree stump were a wonderful exhibition of draughtsmanship and it would have been good to see more. There is a selection of sketchbooks, but these are tucked into the smallest room and harder to get a good view of. Hockney's drawings are different from the paintings, exquisite moments of observation which hold their own against the huge visionary creations. But perhaps it is good to have everything, as an indication of the artist's zest and ceaseless curiosity. Overall the show gives off a tremendous sense of energy and enthusiasm: it is inspiring to think of Hockney, at a senior stage of life, getting up first thing to catch the blossom, excited by new media, passionate about the endless particularity of the natural world. There are no clever ideas to pick up. It's all about looking. As he says of spring blossom, 'it is a pleasure to witness, just an intense visual pleasure'.