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-“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-“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.
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.