Sunday, 4 March 2012

A (much) Bigger Picture: shifted perspectives and altered attitudes

My recent expedition to the Royal Academy blew my mind. 'A Bigger Picture' has to be seen to be believed. Whilst the catalogue is a fabulous memento, it couldn't possibly do the exhibition justice. I walked around the galleries transfixed, in awe and loving each and every moment. I connected with a sense of pure joy, as I took in the whole experience which spoke to my eyes, and to my heart.

Now in his 75th year, Hockney really represents something very special. His career has spanned 5 decades and has touched several generations. Whilst his lifestyle has often attracted comment, and occasional criticism, earning him a reputation as a playboy of the art world, there can be no denying the constant in his life: his work, and his devotion to it. Hockney's energy in recent years appears boundless, and the exhibition bore witness to the unstoppable creativity of the artist, a British hero.

"Most artists work all the time... especially good artists... I mean, what else is there to do?"

The magnitude of the exhibition is indescribable, wandering between the works, I felt absorbed, immersed and consumed. The material invites one to engage with the exhibition, and I took full advantage of the extraordinarily personal experience this permitted, whilst surrounded by fellow appreciators all crowding to get to see this phenomenal show. The colours captivated, the scale seduced.

One of the prominent themes is the relationship between observation and imagination. Observing when painting 'on the spot' using watercolours, or drawing with charcoal he captured the rural scenes with beguiling detail. The ordinary becomes extraordinary. The mundane exciting. The normal wonderful. Nature bursts with energy. Background is foreground. At other times, painting from memory back in the studio, distanced from the source of the inspiration but lacking none of the enthusiasm for his subject. Delighting in the changing seasons, Hockney pinpoints with beautiful precision the shifts we are apt to miss, highlighting the natural evolution that surrounds and enfolds us. At the same time, he often conveys the scene in an abstract palette, allowing imagination to run riot, and creativity to flow freely.

'The Tunnel' at Kilham...

"I can get excitement watching rain on a puddle. And then I paint it. Now, I admit, there are not too many people who would find that exciting. But I would. And I want life thrilling and rich. And it is. I make sure it is."

The pictures are a testament to Hockney's intensity, and energy which belies his years. He offers a journey through the seasons, and depicting favourite 'motifs' of his best loved spots and scenes returned to throughout a year we are invited in to his relationship with his environment; man meets nature. The paths, hedgerows and woods are enticing and the sojourn exhilarating. The chances of leaving in the same mood as you arrived are slim indeed.

'The arrival of Spring in Woldgate'...

"If you see the world as beautiful, thrilling and mysterious, as I think I do, then you feel quite alive."

The exhibition is a feast for the eyes, comfort for the heart and tonic for the spirit. It prompts and promotes emotional engagement. Hockney captured moments and created memories. He offers experiences, inviting us to 'step in' to his work.

Looking to see.
Seeing to believe.
Believing to be become.
Becoming alive through our senses.

From Yorkshire, to California 'A Bigger Picture' demonstrates the artist's flair, and his flexibility. As one of the first people to have an iPad in the UK, as early as 2008, Hockney was putting the technology to great use, and creating works the likes of which I would not have imagined possible. Beautiful seems a woefully inadequate adjective when I think back to what I encountered on Thursday afternoon.

'Three Trees' at Thixendale...

David Hockney O.M., C.H., R.A.
Seemingly born an eccentric, Hockney is renowned for concerning himself very little as to what other people might think. Raised by his mother, a strict Methodist, he is said to have spent afternoons at Sunday School drawing cartoons of Jesus, much to his teachers' dismay.  Awarded a scholarship, he spent much of his formal education at Bradford Grammar School doodling in notebooks, ultimately attaining poor grades. When he requested a transfer to the Regional College of Art his headmaster recommended that he first finish his general education before transferring anywhere.

Arriving at the College of Art in 1953, Hockney here began painting with oils, his medium of choice for most of his life. Painting instantly became an explicit process of seeing and thinking, rather than one of imitation and this lives on in his work to date. His early artwork was abstract and quite personal allowing him to address human sexuality and love in a public, yet still inhibited manner. He developed a penchant for painting mirrors and was influenced by the artwork of painters such as Francis Bacon and other contemporaries. Socially, he made a lot of friends, but never really expressed any sexual interests.

Having attained the National Diploma in Design, he enrolled at the Painting School of the Royal College in London two years later, and immediately felt at home at an institution where there were no steadfast rules or regulations: he thrived in his work, and socially. A dedicated student, he was nurtured by his tutors to find his style, and began painting about subjects that held meaning for him including vegetarianism and the poetry he liked reading. After a little while, Hockney even began painting about his sexual orientation, incorporating words such as "queer" and "unorthodox lover" in some of his paintings. While Hockney had been aware of his attraction to males growing up in Bradford, he had never felt comfortable talking about his sexual orientation until he came to the Royal College and befriended other gay men.

In the summer of 1961, Hockney travelled to New York for the first time and where he was introduced to city's many galleries and museums, as well as the gay scene. To pay for the trip, Hockney sold several of his paintings. Having completed his studies at the Royal College, he began to receive considerable attention from critics, professors, and peers at several student shows. During this early phase of his career, his artwork was poetic and tended to tell narratives. Stubbornly insistent on doing things his own way, Hockney was in danger of not receiving his diploma having failed his Art History courses. Nonetheless, he was awarded the gold medal for outstanding distinction at the convocation and ended his college career on a tremendously good note.

Whilst Hockney had befriended both Andy Warhol and Dennis Hopper whilst in NYC, when he returned to the States, he did so to travel to California, hungry to experience the sleazy underground world of Los Angeles. He immediately fell in love with the city and made Santa Monica his home. This new environment greatly inspired him and he was enamoured by the laid-back, sunny lifestyle that Los Angeles provided. It was during this phase that Hockney developed the naturalistic, realistic style he is best known for today.

"I love California; everything is so artificial."

On hosting his first American exhibition in New York, Hockney received rave reviews and sold every painting. Now something of an international star, he became interested in photography, snapping those he spent time with, including his partners. For many years, Hockney remained content painting and showcasing his work at various exhibits. His work had gained much esteem and attention all over the world. Critics instantly recognized the power of his art. Most of his paintings from the late sixties and early seventies, adhered to the concept of naturalism - representing things as they were actually seen. For the most part, Hockney was concerned with finding a balance between pure skill and pure art in his idea of naturalism. He did want his art to seem overtly academic, but moreover, he had not satisfied his abstract tendencies.

"All painting, no matter what you are painting, is abstract in that it's got to be organized."

In the eighties, Hockney turned to photo collage. Using a Polaroid camera, Hockney would assemble collages of photos that he would take as quickly as possible. Hockney was fascinated with the idea of seeing things through a window frame. This medium allowed him to see things in a whole new fashion. He took a drive in the southwest United States taking thousands of photos and fitting them altogether into various collages. His artwork also began to take on a psychological dimension. In the autumn of 1983, Hockney began a series of self-portraits, allowing the public to enter his personal inner life, and showing himself to be vulnerable and unsure of himself, despite the success and acclaim he had accrued through his art.

"I may seem to be passionately concerned with the 'hows' of representation, how you actually represent rather than 'what' or 'why'. But to me this is inevitable. The 'how' has a great effect on what we see. To say that 'what we see' is more important than 'how we see it' is to think that 'how' has been settled and fixed. When you realize this is not the case, you realize that 'how' often affects 'what' we see."

In the nineties, Hockney continued to experiment with rising technologies. He used a colour laser copier in some of his works and reproduced some of his paintings. Hockney was impressed with the vibrancy of colour that could be achieved using such devices. He also began sending drawings to friends via fax machines and was thrilled with this new way of communication. Much of the appeal lay in the fact that these newly produced images had no financial value at all. Thus sharing art became a true act of love and appreciation.

"Dawn is about luminosity and so is the iPhone... The little drawings of the dawn are done while I'm still in bed... If you're in my kind of business you'd be a fool to sleep through that... Artists can't work office hours, can they?"

iPad art...

"All art is contemporary, if it's alive, and if it's not alive, what's the point of it?"

Hockney's life and all his loves are always on display to the public. By embracing all sorts of technology and media, Hockney has made his art accessible to people everywhere. He has used art to express the love he has felt for others, and consequently, his works show personal stake and personal meaning. Ironically, his artwork caused much personal suffering and strife in the making and breaking of his romances, while at the same time, garnering him much respect and admiration. Hockney has truly made art a form of real human interaction and communication.

"What an artist is trying to do for people is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing: you wouldn't be an artist if you didn't want to share an experience, a thought."

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