Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

Jim Sienkiewicz's thoughts on his own and others' photography

Monthly Archives: December 2013

David Hockney-“A Bigger Exhibition”

de Young Museum of San Francisco
October 26, 2013-January 20, 2014

Both in scale and quantity of imagery, “A Bigger Exhibition” lives up to its title in this massive survey of painter David Hockney’s work of the past two decades. Outside of a few examples from earlier periods that establish context, this exhibition program almost exclusively features work from the 2000’s and displays the diversity of the artist’s range in several media in his continuing evolution of style as well as engagement of contemporary technology. Hockney’s investigations and adaptation of photographic techniques and principles dates back to the death throes of Pop Art and Modernism, but the ways in which the painter turned conceptual photographer has embraced such novel platforms as the iPad and digital video are stunningly refreshing and also a promising sign of technology not signaling an inherent end to creativity, but rather a chronological extension of it.

David Hockney-%22More Felled Trees on Woldgate%22-2008

David Hockney-“More Felled Trees on Woldgate” (2008)

While the exhibition press releases and catalog make continued mention of Hockney’s consummate virtuosity of “draftsmanship”, I found this statement to be an unfit description considering the often purposefully rough and slightly unfinished qualities of the works included in the exhibition. This is not to say that Hockney isn’t gifted in his ability to manipulate line and paint, just that the emphasis on this aspect of the artist’s practice seem at odds with the lack of pictorial delineation the painter so often employs to thoroughly evoke texture and atmosphere. One may argue that these are in deed attributes of impeccable drafting, but when a large part of both the show as well as Hockney’s oeuvre concentrate on painting’s relationship to photography, this argument gets lost in some of the points the artist has repeatedly broached over the course of his career.

Take for example the room which displays Hockney’s own camera lucida drawings juxtaposed against a large multi-wall mural of reproductions that depict the evolution of the painted portrait over the course of eight centuries: “The Great Wall”. Beginning with the pre-Renaissance work of Cimabue and cycling through an ever-greater sense of photographic realism in the masters of the following epochs, both the accompanying text statement and the organization of the imagery suggest the potential use of aids to draftsmanship that may have produced the realistic fidelity of painting throughout art history. Hockney ushered in a controversial debate a decade ago with the publication of his “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters” and its suggestion that artists from Van Eyck to Vermeer utilized camera obscuras and lucidas in order to master perspective and perfect verisimilitude of their subjects. For those unaware, the camera obscura is the forerunner of the contemporary camera and is either an opaque room or box that projects an image from the outside world into the dark interior through a small aperture (without or without glass). This basic principal of optical physics would allow an artist to construct a tent in the landscape or utilize a smaller apparatus and then project and trace an image onto a mounted canvas or support. These techniques date to the Renaissance and the smaller and more portable camera lucida was first introduced in 1807. While Hockney does have strong evidence for his claims that many artists have made use of such tools as aids to their artistic practice, the over-simplified account detailed in the exhibition makes too broad of an assumption. Renaissance figures such as Paolo Uccello created incredibly complex spatial studies that relied heavily on mathematical formula and spatial observation, not the use of a camera obscura. Jan Van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Wedding” (1434) signals a massive breakthrough in the life-like delineation of the human form not only for its photographic perspective and clarity, but also for that master painter’s landmark introduction of oil paint rather than tempera and the resulting vivid colors and textures that render greater illusionistic depth. Even the statement’s assertion that the great Frenchman Ingres was exploiting the camera lucida bears little consequence upon close examination of his famous odalisques and the obvious ways in which the painter has elongated the female form and “mannerized” the human body. Even in the 20th century abstract artist Willem de Kooning was able to so faithfully render a portrait that both his sitters and contemporaries were amazed by his gifts of draftsmanship, often comparing him to Ingres in his absolute mastery of line. While one is less apt to take issue with the claim that many artists have incorporated photographic aids into their work over the centuries, it becomes a specious argument the way in which the exhibition states it, and one that is especially speculative and perhaps politically motivated given the 20th and 21st century painterly practice of using grids (see Chuck Close), slide projectors (see Richard Estes) and even computers and Photoshop (see the scores of realists of the past 20 years) as means of making paintings appear photo-realistic.

David Hockney-%22The Great Wall%22

David Hockney-“The Great Wall” (detail)

On a less contentious note, let us take into consideration the beauty of David Hockney’s recent large-scale landscape paintings in oil and the gorgeous plays of color that make them successful. Hockney is truly a master of color, and this is a feature of the work that should have been played up more than the quality of his draftsmanship. In several canvases the medleys of chroma remind one of Gauguin or Van Gogh and this kinship bears out further likeness in the linear movements created in several pieces. The 2008 painting “More Felled Trees on Woldgate” seems especially reminiscent of some of Van Gogh’s canvases both in their sense of color contrasts and implied spatial dimensions. Many of the charcoal studies and works on paper also evoke similar sensations of texture in the style of Charles Burchfield. The implication of tactility was marvelous and the ways in which Hockney has allowed the negative space and lack of defined contours to create a greater suggestion of substance shows his aptitude for knowing how to utilize a minimal rendition for maximal effect.

Burchfield-Hockney

Comparison of Charles Burchfield’s “Pine Tree and Oriental Poppies” (1955-60) and David Hockney’s “Kilham to Rudston” (2008)

I was also very pleasantly surprised by Hockney’s iPad drawings/paintings which proved to be some of the most interesting work in the show. Both the portraits and landscapes were successful in their manipulation of this new technology (which the artist has used since its inception in 2010) and these pieces seem to glow with a wonderful sense of interior illumination. It is almost as if the backlit projection of the mobile device has been embedded into the reflective surface of the physical prints on dibond that were mounted for the exhibition.

In my opinion the “cubist movies” which Hockney has recently created really stole the show. These pieces were crafted using several digital video cameras mounted to an armature so that a larger scene was captured with multiple perspectives. Calling to mind Paul Cezanne’s disintegration of one-point perspective as well as the Cubist movement in general, these multi-screen installations were stimulating in their off-kilter registration of the same scene as well as their inherent emphasis on perception. A piece with jugglers throwing their implements across a panoramic space was perhaps most dramatic in displaying this re-organization of spatial realities but the landscape pieces were breathtaking for their immersion of the viewer into the space(s) as well as their conceptual structuring. In the same downstairs galleries as the artist’s largest works on canvas, there is one room which exhibits the same East Yorkshire bucolic locale in all four of the distinct seasons. Each piece occupies its own individual wall and all the videos are synchronized as to generate an enveloping encounter with time and weather creating an almost sublime experience. Even with other museum attendees present the pieces create an intimate space for the viewer to become a part of. These digital videos serve as a fitting compliment not only to the nearby painted landscapes but also to the continuing fascination that David Hockney has had with photographic media over the course of his career and his desire to both adapt and go beyond this medium as a counterpart to his oeuvre in painting.

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3 for 1 review: 49 Geary Street Galleries, San Francisco-December 2013

This past week I had the opportunity to visit the galleries at 49 Geary Street and view a few photography exhibitions that warrant discussion. While at times the shows were mixed in their success and impact on the viewer, all three of these exhibits provided their own unique take on photographic approaches to a specific subject.

Let’s begin with the Robert Koch Gallery and the display of images by the late Hungarian photographer János Szász (1925-2005). The Koch gallery is typically a staple of high quality contemporary and historical photography, and this show presented an artist who was unknown to myself prior to the viewing of the work. The high contrast black & white prints display the strong emphasis on abstraction latent in much of Modernist art photography and Szász’s pictures attest to the international influence of contemporary practitioners such as Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. The photographs appear to be the result of extreme underexposure and then severe push processing of the film to achieve an all but bi-tonal separation of values that render even mundane subjects like a movie theatre or soviet-era blockhouse into crisp, rhythmic designs. The photographer utilized potassium-ferricyanide bleach (a chemical applied with a paintbrush to brighten highlights or shadows) to augment the richness of his monochromatic separation and the results create a striking level of non-objectivity despite the all-too everyday interest implied by his chosen subjects. The prints in this exhibition were vintage, and this was an element of the presentation that was readily noticeable in the varying paper types, creases and dents in the prints, as well as the multi-colored and roughly retouched dust spots and scratches visible in the imagery. As a darkroom instructor myself, the utter sloppiness of the attempt at concealing the imperfections of the photographs would normally begin to detract from the refinement of the pictures, but here the effect was less pronounced and even arguably something that lent to the humble nature of the simplified designs. (To be fair, this is an arbitrarily applied axiom that often accompanies older, historical photographs.) The most striking image in the show was perhaps the one heavily reproduced by the gallery in their promotion of the exhibition, a picture of couples dancing and captured with their movement dragged across the plane of the film’s negative. The effect is reminiscent of Italian Futurism and their adoption of motion to impart both energy and formal dynamism to their artworks. For myself the most interesting picture and the one that seemed to best handle the heavily manipulated contrast was a simple image of a herd of sheep contoured in intense chiaroscuro, thus elevating a common rural scene into one of strong pictorial values.

János Szász-“Herd”-1971
Janos Szasz-Herd-1971

Next up was the Stephen Wirtz Gallery and Sean McFarland’s body of work entitled “Glass Mountains”. This exposition was the most conceptually oriented as well as thematic of the three galleries being reviewed, and perhaps some viewers might not take to the loosely applied criteria that often determined which pieces were chosen to amalgamate the exhibit. The title and subject matter of McFarland’s work is derived from a particular location in the Inyo National Forest of California that constitutes the locale for most, but not all of the pictures included in the gallery. There were a variety of different photographic media on display, from the contemporary archival pigment print to traditional gelatin silver images as well as cyanotypes and minimalistic multiple media collages. There were also several small-scale black & white polaroids presented both as singular images as well as multi-panel grids, and while some of these particular pieces were interesting in their abstract allusions to various aspects of the natural landscape, the process being detailed on the title cards as “monochromatic dye diffusion transfer print” might seem obnoxiously grandiloquent. Even to the most high-minded of gallery-goers this may seem pompous considering this description is a blatant financial pampering of “instant print” or “polaroid”. That said, I do believe that keeping an open mind when viewing this work allows for the audience to appreciate the cosmopolitan approach McFarland brings to his subject matter, and I found the diversity of mediums refreshing considering the strong emphasis on an uniform theme. Some of the photographs do depict actual mountain landscapes while others suggest similar formal and even emotional resonances with constructions created by McFarland that echo features of the natural environment. The pigment prints were dimly exposed and de-saturated in their palette, but this artistic choice not only generated a strong mood for these pictures but also unified these pieces with the remainder of the imagery, while an alternate take on the capture process might have made these more straightforward documents of the terrains incongruous. As a total effect, “Glass Mountains” evidences the vision of an individual clearly interested in themes of nature and its illustration, but with the unique perspective of a photographer less concerned with the purity of any one medium and more for the impact derived from the manipulation of materials towards their own conceptual goal.

Sean McFarland-“Untitled (Blue Glass Mountain)”-2013
Sean McFarland-Untitled (Blue Glass Mountain)-2013

Finally, we must discuss the Arbus retrospective at the Fraenkel Gallery: “DIANE ARBUS: 1971–1956”. This show is a must-see and a perfect example of why Fraenkel remains the premier institution at 49 Geary for seminal and groundbreaking photography. While a case for the importance of Arbus in photographic history hardly needs to be waged, this presentation of both lesser and well-known images provides for a wonderful assessment of the photographer’s oeuvre. Chronicling a 15-year period, the included portraits attest to Arbus’ continuing interest in persons on the margins of society as well as her aptitude for normalizing these individuals at the same time that she seems to debunk the status quo of civilized archetypes that she also chose to highlight. The aesthetic of Arbus breaks every rule of both traditional as well as academic approaches to composition, lighting and printmaking, but as has been long remarked, these are the often charming qualities that generate the reality and impact of her pictures and make them stand out against the peers of her own time period. While brought to a level of prominence during her lifetime with her inclusion in the landmark 1967 MOMA exhibition “New Documents”, it is largely the posthumous notoriety she has received that has firmly cemented her in the annuls of photographic history. What a sensitive and perceptive artist she was. She understood that technique or style could not supplant her empathy for humanity, and that ultimately this is why she was a great photographer. Interestingly enough the print quality in the Fraenkel prints is quite good, while still in keeping with the anti-aesthetic associated with Arbus’ work. The most telling images were the more obscure inclusions, such as the “Backwards Man” in his NYC apartment and especially a completely non-sexualized portrait of an older gentleman and his hired dominatrix. Pictures such as “Kid in black-face with friend, N.Y.C. 1957” not only project the prejudices of a bygone era, but also the overarching manner in which Arbus was able to deflate the “normals” of society while at the same time ennobling the so-called “freaks” that she humanized repeatedly. While I had seen the large survey of Arbus’ life and work that SF MOMA put on several years ago, honestly the impact is almost greater when viewing this more modestly sized collection of images. The genius of the photographer is subtler and at the same time more potent in how the pictures display her recurring themes over the multiple decade approach to her chosen iconography.

Diane Arbus-“The Backwards Man”-1961
Diane Arbus-The Backwards Man-1961