At the last minute I almost didn’t go, as a glance at the catalogue showed that the exhibition was dominated by ipod and ipad pictures (heaps of them printed out on paper and merely pinned to the gallery walls). But I was pleasantly surprised, partly by the ingenuity of the myriad viewpoints and use of colour. And this is one of the things about this David Hockney show at the NGV (entitled ‘current’ so you are clear you won’t be seeing any of the iconic Californian paintings) – it is all about volume rather than particular works chosen for being iconic paintings. Apart, that is, from the gigantic painting (composed of numerous smaller canvasses) ‘Bigger Trees near Warter’, which is apparently the biggest plein air painting ever attempted. But even then, the painting fills one wall of a room, and if that wasn’t enough, it has been duplicated on paper in the same size on the other four walls of the gallery room.
Gallery-goers were ‘phew’-ing over the number of works, and it is true that the obvious diligence of Hockney’s painting every day is impressive. Not just for volume, but for noticing everything (a plant on a windowsill, a teacup) and thinking it worthy of capturing. Interesting though that most of the show is a gallery of reproductions (prints). But the quality of the printing is good, and the indulgence of colour is energising. And I guess one could think of this as like a photography exhibition. But whereas other artists may use the technology to do things impossible with paint, here Hockney is bending the technology back towards the traditional.
Yet in one sense, the medium dictates the message, because the lines in the i-paintings are clearly different from a brushstroke (even if the program he uses attempts to mimic the brushstroke). They have a characteristic curve that is different to the sweep of an actual brush. It’s this mix of the traditional and technological that is somewhat surprising. A room featuring Hockney’s manipulated photography shows that the i-equipment is not the only technology he is experimenting with.
One interesting thing about the ipad technique is that the program Hockney uses captures each brushstroke in its memory and therefore a video can be (re)played of the build-up of the picture. And what this shows is that these are not mere dashings-off, but many of these pictures are as painstakingly layered and re-worked as a traditional painting. In many ways the gaiety, the colour, the volume, the traditional still life, portrait and landscape subject matter, not to mention the technology, may tend to mask a serious artist.
Elsewhere in the exhibition is a (long) room of his famous recent series of dozens of portraits, all the sitters in the same chair with the same blue and aqua background. And again, it is the cumulative effect that is on show. Each individual portrait is what in a previous century may have been thought of as a study preparatory for a more serious work. Which may show that when Hockney is lauded as Britain’s best living painter, ‘best’ may mean quantity not quality. (Interesting that he continues to title works ‘bigger’ somethings. It seemed initially like too easily cutely playing off his reputation, but now I wonder whether he is simply interested in doing bigger or more than everyone else.) Each portrait is full-length, and because the sitters (literally) are in a chair, what tends to dominate, weirdly, are the feet and legs.
What is missing in the exhibition is drawing, and I know that there are sketches of the same subject matter that crops up in the i-paintings. But then black and white works may seem out of place in an exhibition so dominated by bright colour.