Lacking Doubt – David Hockney at the NGV

David Hockney: Current

 National Gallery of Victoria 11th November 2016 – 13th March 2017

Image of display of printed digital drawings and two screens displaying work by David Hockney
A visitor checks her phone, surrounded by David Hockney’s digital drawings

Two mobile phones attached to a purple wall greet you at the entrance to this exhibition. Their screens are displaying images of David Hockney’s drawings done on a phone. My younger companion’s first reaction is not to the image but to the type of phone. Iphone not android she observes glancing and moving on.

Is this an exhibition about drawing, about Hockney or about technology? Or about advertising? Apple doesn’t seem to have its logo anywhere, but let’s face it; this exhibition is about one company’s product.  Is Apple getting all this endorsement for free?

‘It is the first real exhibition about my iPad and iPhone works. This is the first time I’ve done it on this scale. This exhibition is really a marvelous (sic) review of the last ten years of my work. I’ve been able to practice the iPad a lot in the last few years. I’ve been using the iPad since it came out…’ (Hockney on the NGV website)

There’s no escaping the fact that the nexus between the commercial and creative worlds is skewed with such dependence on a particular brand. Many artists would be tempted to make some comment on this in the work, but it never comes up. Hockney never was a political artist. You might point to his self referential homosexual imagery, but although recruited to progressive causes, you get the feeling that for him it was just autobiography. And maybe for Hockney, iphones are just the next tool. It’s a naivety that not everyone can get away with.

But Hockney can get away with a lot. With pending or recent shows at NGV, the Tate, Belfast, Royal Academy, Venice and Spain there’s a lot of effusive editorial in the air. While other shows such as the Tate will show a retrospective, Melbourne is blessed with David Hockney: Current,  an exhibition of work from the past ten years.

He’s been busy. Hockney, like Degas whose work was shown in this space recently, is an artist with a restless appetite for creating images. The urgent desire to create, the almost carnal need for colour, the constant experimentation in many media – these are common to both artists. And like Degas, who turned to the newest technology available – the photograph – Hockney has done the same with digital drawing. Degas’ photographs are the least interesting of his oeuvre, and likewise these iphone drawings have very limited appeal. Experimentation and finished work are usually quite separate practices. We have no evidence Degas considered his photographs completed works, or even art at all. He didn’t choose to exhibit them. Hockney however immerses us in walls covered with large scale prints of iphone or ipad drawings. He overwhelms the viewer with scale, with repetition, with fluorescent colour and flickering images. He lacks doubt.

Image of David Hockneys painting 'Bigger Trees Near Warter' (sic)
‘Bigger Trees Near Warter’  David Hockney. Image used under ‘Fair Use’ provision

The oddest thing about this exhibition is a sense of repetition, not just in the ipad drawings but later also in the portraits.  In the first room the walls are covered with printed digital drawings, each of identical format, laid out in two rows, one above the other like film strips, none with individual names. The wallpaper effect of the multiple prints hung without break makes it impossible to see these as individual images. You wander, scan, glance at the whole, picking out one here and there – I like that one, oh there’s Van Gogh, there’s Munch – before turning aside and moving on.  The ubiquity of these images reduces them to background not foreground. Is this a comment on the digital age – the fact that we are constantly besieged with visual information? Or is Hockney simply dazzling us with his dexterity?

Single images do resume centre stage in the next room. Here they cover the entire height and width of the walls. A giant landscape painting, Bigger Trees Near Warter  is surrounded by printed versions of itself, dwarfing its audience.  Hockney seems to have got plein air painting mixed up with stage design and this is the offspring. I’m so perplexed by his motives I have difficulty taking in the image. The vital thing about plein air painting is that it is about what you are looking for as much as what you are looking at. Hockney seems to be looking for a way to stylize space.

A visitor takes in one of David Hockneys large prints of a digital drawing of the Yosemites
A visitor takes in one of David Hockneys large prints of a digital drawing of the Yosemites

This stylization is perhaps the key to what attracted Hockney to digital drawings; giant size prints of his landscapes fill the following rooms. Arrival of Spring is a series based on the Yorkshire landscape. Vibrant in colour, vigorous in line, yet they are inert. This media is ideal if you want to play with form, but not mark. Mark implies the human hand, style requires detachment. The weightless, texture free surface of a digital print has an airbrushed, sanitised sense that takes the visceral quality of drawing out of the equation. The layering of line over tone recalls Raoul Dufy, but the range of mark employed by Dufy, transmitting a vibrant quirky upbeat sensibility is absent. To me the lack of affect is a loss; perhaps Hockney sees it as a gain.

Image of David Hockney's portraits installed at the NGV
Eighty two Hockney portraits are hung in a long room.

The human figure has always been central to Hockney’s work. Eighty-two portraits are hung in a long, burnt-orange corridor of a room. Ostensibly about individuals, once again style has carried the day. Each sitter is registered in near-identical colours – fluorescent pink skin under a cool light on turquoise and cobalt backgrounds in the same size and format. Strangely for portraiture, it’s not people you see. You see Hockneys. The individual is suppressed to fit the image. Many other artists have used this strategy, Picasso comes to mind, but never with such repetition. Would not one suffice? The drive to make images seems to trump all other concerns. The unfortunate result is a fatuous surfeit.

A darkened room completes the exhibition. It contains a beautiful filmic arrangement of a laneway in Yorkshire on four banks of screens. Nine cameras on Hockney’s car recorded the images driving down the same lane in different seasons. The slight disjunctures in perspective and timing add up to an entrancing whole. The slow progression down the laneway seems at odds with the frenetic pace of production which seems to have compelled Hockney in the rest of the show. No doubt, the artist’s interest in perspective and space underpin this and many other items in the exhibition. But while motives may reveal layers of meaning, causes are more complex. Substance is obliterated by effect in this latest body of Hockney’s work.

Alexandra Sasse

(Note: Warter is a location in Yorkshire)

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2 thoughts on “Lacking Doubt – David Hockney at the NGV”

    • Stella, how kind. I am glad you found it interesting. I peeped at your lovely whimsical work on your website. A lovely mood in the “Elsewhere” work. If you’d like to receive updates, you can join my VIP community at the link on the bottom of the page. Best wishes.

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