David Hockney at Tate Britain: To Go or Not to Go?

David Hockney 1

David Hockney’s paintings never really grabbed me. I was familiar with some of his iconic yet dissimilar works such as We Two Boys Together Clinging and A Bigger Splash. I knew both were considered “important” but never really knew why. I couldn’t get too enthusiastic about his 2012 exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Tate Britain in London announces it is showing the first ever exhibition that covers the sixty years of Hockney’s work. After some reflection, I get on a plane.

The exhibition is causing quite some excitement in the UK and even on the BBC. I am determined not to be swept up by the hype. If I am disappointed or confused by the exhibition, I am going to say so. Harsh critic, me! The day does not start well. Yesterday’s visit to the dentist is proving painful. I am crammed in a commuter train. It is cold and raining hard. I arrive at Tate Britain fifteen minutes before the doors open. A crowd has already gathered. Friendly staff eventually unlock and let us all in. We drip our way across the marble floor to get in line to check our umbrellas and soaked coats. By the time I am in the first room of the exhibition, it is packed. A child is crying loudly. At this point, I consider walking out. But, with aching jaw, I decide to shuffle along with the rest of middle-class England. A man in a tweed jacket say to his wife “He was gay, you know!” She replies “Well, never mind, dear!”

The exhibition occupies twelve spaces arranged by chronolgy and/or influences. After my first tour, I go around again with the audio guide. I buy the handsome 270-page catalogue. I return the following day. This show is monumental in its scope and presentation. It contains some exceptionally beautiful pictures. To say I am bowled over is an understatement. Exhibitions will never be the same. Tate Britain makes manifest something about David Hockney that has previously eluded me; that he is Britain’s best-known living picture-maker because he is a towering genius. Yes, my opinion is modified somewhat!

We have to be “wowed” these days. As (or if) you view the Hockney exhibition, do not expect to be wowed by everything. Do not even expect to be wowed by the majority of his pictures; you will be wowed by some. What will certainly wow you is to reach the final space having glimpsed the sixty year creative trajectory and the staggering output of a man whose life is dedicated not only to picture-making but also, and more importantly, to addressing the inadequacies of all means of picture–making when it comes to representing in two dimensions the world we see and move in. My road to Damascus moment comes after viewing and reviewing Hockney’s life, influences and pictures along and in light of this trajectory.

David Hockney 2

“We Two Boys Together Clinging” 1961 Oil on board 122cm x 152cm

The first room (A Play Within a Play) establishes a critical element of Hockney’s work. This is that a person’s visual perception of the picture is taken into account; the spectator is challenged, intrigued, amused, teased, confronted or manipulated. The collection from the early 1960s in the second room (Demonstrations of Versatility) amply demonstrates the 25 year-old Hockney’s disdain for painting’s protocols and etiquette and his rejection of social convention. His work at that time has been labelled both “pop” and “abstract expressionism.” In Hockney’s view, neither term applies. The paintings outrageously promulgate his homosexuality at a time when it was illegal. They are difficult to like. However, they show that whatever trajectory young Hockney was on, it was never going to be ordinary.

The next three rooms (Paintings with People In, Sunbather and Towards Naturalism) show Hockney abandoning his previous style and slowly progressing towards naturalism. This phase is closely linked to his love affair with California which began when he moved there in 1964. Expansive canvases show illusional domestic scenes, couples in relationships, sun-blessed swimming pools, light on water and glass, bare-bottomed young men, palm trees and a squeaky clean suburban Los Angeles. The later paintings are precisely executed. He waves two fingers at the Abstract Expressionists when he points out that the splash of his A Bigger Splash was meticulously painted with a small brush over weeks.

David Hockney 3

A Bigger Splash 1967 Acrylic on canvas 242cm x 244cm

In the last of these three rooms are two paintings that in different ways reveal the full extent of Hockney’s technical mastery of painting. Mt. Fuji and Flowers (1974) and Contre-Jour in the French Style (1974) are both mesmerisingly beautiful.

The exhibition leads us on to a room (Close Looking) that contains sketches from Hockney’s extensive travels and some truly exquisite drawn portraits. They provide a welcome break from the preceding huge canvases. This room is particularly popular with other viewers; they take much longer to stop and discuss. It prepares us for what comes next (A Bigger Photography.)

David Hockney 4

The Scrabble Game 1983 Photographic collage 99cm x 147cm

Hockney found photography an inadequate means to make pictures. He felt it was limited by the one-point perspective and the “frozen moment” of the image. Allowing himself the influence of cubism, he embarked on a process involving hundreds of photographs per work that resulted in some of the most arresting pictures – including portraits – ever produced by this medium. Fast forward four rooms to The Four Seasons (2010-2011.) On each wall of a square hang nine crystal-clear video screens that show a coordinated nine-screen-slo-mo-scene of the same English country lane; but each wall is dedicated to one of the four seasons. I am captivated and abandon any attempt to find adequate words. I steal them from the catalogue: “high-def post cubist movie”! And Hockney’s extraordinary digital adventure has only just begun!

The three intervening rooms (Experiences of Space, Experiences of Place and The Wolds) comprise large brightly coloured canvases painted from the early 1980s through to 2009. People move past them quickly. Experiences of Space is strongly influenced by Picasso and Chinese scroll painting as Hockney freely admits. These paintings also reflect Hockney’s interest in the design of theatre sets. Perspective is flattened and one’s eye is forced to move around the fragments of the composition. The provenance of Experiences of Place is Hockney’s draw to wide open spaces. It is the least approachable part of the whole exhibition. The three garish renditions of the Grand Canyon do not work as landscape pictures. The Wolds brings Hockney back to England. These large, bright, multi-canvas, non-naturalistic landscapes are certainly intriguing but don’t set my senses a-buzz.

The penultimate room (Yorkshire and Hollywood) contains 25 closely mounted, stunning charcoal drawings from 2013 of a springtime Yorkshire woodland. Shortly after their completion, Hockney returned to his home in Hollywood where, in 2015, he completed his most recent large canvases of his garden and famous blue balcony. Hockney is now 80 years old. Is the juxtaposition of the spring drawings with these paintings to be seen as a kind of beginning and end? Are we about to arrive in the final scene of an epic film?

I stand in the middle of the last room (iPads) surrounded by his digital paintings done between 2009 and 2016. Some evolve as I watch. I am enthralled as an original Hockney of a small cactus in a red pot in a blue mug on a yellow tablecloth appears in front of me over two minutes. Every style, subject, influence and medium finds its way onto these screens. His extraordinary trajectory is encapsulated here. It is the most brilliant summary of his life’s work and of the exhibition. It is also his legacy. However, I suspect Hockney’s trajectory is yet to come to ground. Whilst this room may, in reality and metaphorically, represent the final scenes of Hockney’s blockbuster, there is a hint of more to come; another episode. A bigger exhibition even?

So, here’s what I think. This is the most important, beautiful and satisfying exhibition you will see. Go! Even if you are determined to dislike or dismiss Hockney’s work, go! Mix with the crowd! Get stuck in! Lap it all up! Be outraged! Be awed!

All images of David Hockney’s work are reproduced here thanks to Tate Britain.

Cave paintings in the twenty-first century?

Isaac calls me. “Hey, buddy, what going on with the advertising spaces in Geneva? Half the billboards are just covered with plain white paper. People have started to paint on them.” I grab my camera, hop on my bike and head into town.

Cave paintings 1

My first stop is right outside the University Hospital. Brilliant! This rapidotriptych by p2 recalls those ubiquitous questionnaires. So…. after your visit to hospital, were you unsatisfied, more-or-less satisfied or very satisfied with your treatment?

It’s cold. I freewheel down to the Plain Palais area.

Cave paintings 2

I find a bit of inner warmth in this rather beautifully designed rainbow-love-eye. Next to it is RZINO’s grotesque zombie face.

Cave paintings 3

This is fascinating. I think it most likely that an ad agency has gone bust and not having material to stick up has simply painted its billboards white. I’m a sucker for street painting but there’s always the reasonable debate whether such work is beautiful stuff or vandalism. In my view, if someone leaves open white spaces like this all-around town, then those shadowy figures armed with brush or spray can would reasonably see this as an invitation to set about their business. It’s difficult to call this vandalism; my pendulum of judgement swings towards beautiful stuff.

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This is by “Charles drawin'”?? Clever! Is his work the outcome of natural selection? Charles has been busy; he has covered about twenty billboards. His slick, rapid brush strokes hang between abstract and the figurative. Here, I sort of see a lady running in billowing skirts with a dog hurrying along beside her. I’ve seen less interesting stuff in the most exclusive of galleries.

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And take a look at this! @CRBZ.TYPO has covered the white with mat black and then overlain sumptuous interwoven arabesque golden curves. I am reminded of the liveries of exclusive Middlle-Eastern airlines. Amazing to encounter this “on the street.”

I head over to the other side of town. I find two billboards taken over by half a sun.

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In orbit around our blazing sun are three planets. The blue planet (Earth), the red planet (Mars) and what is obviously a bigger Saturn. A lonely little voice says “Allo”!? reflecting our constant search – or hope – for some kind of cosmic life-form that, we believe, will understand our greeting and respond appropriately. I also love the little random splashes of blue paint. A little bit of chaos theory thrown in?

What is happening on these cold white ad spaces is really exciting. It has a raw appeal. It’s straight from the guts. At the same time, much of it is technically accomplished. (It beats the edndless ads for health and beauty spas, visiting circuses, luxury watches and political parties.) What makes this different from other “art forms” is that it results from people doing their beautiful stuff unbidden and unpaid. Many of us would not even recognise it as “art” (whatever that might be.) I reflect on some aboriginal rock paintings I saw last year in Australia and, in turn, all those famous cave paintings that cause such excitement. So, here’s the question: If there’s no element of vandalism, does filling these empty billboards represent a primal human urge to leave a mark for others? A mark that indicates what I see, what I fear, what I hope for or what I believe in? Are we looking at the equivalent of cave paintings in the twenty-first century?

Maybe other readers of Talking Beautiful Stuff have taken an interest in what is happening on our streets? Have you got photos of other billboards that you think we should see? Send them to us. We’ll try and find your favourite, contact the modern cave-painter and do a feature on his or her work.

Before you go….. look what stared out at me from the shadows as I waited for a tram last night!

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All the American fun of the fair!

American fun 1

It’s that time of year! The Fête de Genève. The main event of the annual civic calendar. The Cartoons for Peace exhibit is removed from the lakefront. Articulated lorries swing into the centre of town loaded with the unlikely metal constructions of a hundred shows and rides. Shouting in a dozen languages, muscled and tattooed young men bolt and hammer the whole scene into place.

American fun 2

It is a couple of days before the Lake Festival begins. It is mid-morning but there are already thousands of tourists ambling about. Selfie city. Rock music blasts out. Hotel California. Johnny Be Good. Spicy smoke from Asian food in preparation stings my eyes. I notice a small 116 year-old carrousel. In this setting it is rather understated and dignified. The decoration has a by-gone charm. There is even a hand-painted and quite passable landscape of a Swiss lake with famous centuries-old boats. So cute!

I decide to look more closely at the artwork on some other attractions. Maybe not so cute but fascinating nevertheless. The circus theme is predictable.

American fun 3

Most are decorated by spray paint. There is beautiful stuff to be found here. I can’t help wondering who these master aerosol-painters are. Is this the day-job for hooded graffiti taggers?

American fun 4

A panel with a hundred bulbs is bolted into place. Jacko! Then I spot Elvis!

American fun 5

In a moment of giddying perception, I realise that, in fact, the main visual theme of the whole show is Pop Americana!

American fun 6

Why American objects such as big American trucks or American football helmets should excite us to the point that we dig into our pockets and spend hard-earned money on being turned upside down at high speed and nauseated is difficult to comprehend. But it’s all part of the atmosphere… I guess!

American fun 7

Above all, the dominant theme of these technically brilliant works is Disney. The origins maybe American but the appeal is global and the images universally associated with good times, fun and laughter. This must be America’s biggest cultural export ever.

American fun 8

I couldn’t resist snapping Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear, my favourite Disney character. He’s just so duty-bound and lovable but poignantly dim. He invites us into some cosmic whirligig. Subliminal message: even if you are scared out of your wits, good old Buzz will look after you!

American fun 9

Right next to Fun City Vegas Super Nevada Paradise is Ali Baba. I am not sure what Ali is offering as the construction is, inshallah, ongoing. Somehow, given the current state of Americana, I just don’t think a fairground stall with a middle-eastern theme including camels and bedouin tents (but Disney-style treasure chests!) will have a great success. I’ll go back soon and bring you an update.

If you go down to the lakefront in the next days, you really don’t need to take a ride. Just take in some of the decoration! Send us a photo or two!

Lunch at the Ariana

I am early for a lunch meeting at the Ariana Museum. I take a seat in the discrete little restaurant. The tables are as yet empty. There is a display of large china dishes and vases. Not so surprising given this museum’s standing in the world of ceramics and glassware.

Ariana 1

Jan De Vliegher “China Blue V&A” 2014 Acrylic on canvas

Then a double-take. This is not a display case. It’s a painting! I approach Jan De Vliegher‘s “China Blue V&A” in awe. The realism is extraordinary.

Ariana 2

Detail of China Blue V&A

More extraordinary still is that the tones, perspective and depth of field have been produced by a combination of the boldest of brush strokes, splashes and drips; a technique rarely associated with, let alone accomplishing, realism. I can’t draw my eyes away from this painting. This is master-class beautiful stuff.

Ariana 3

Paul March “In Pulverum Speramus” Clay, 2015

After lunch, I look around the rest of the museum. In a corner by a door I stumble upon something recognisably from the studio of Paul March. Five smooth ceramic forms are arranged in the pose of a sleeping dog. I want to pick up each part and heft it in my hand. The whole is pleasing. Although caught between abstraction and canine imagary, the piece captures the awkwardness of man’s best friend lying on a hard floor. The title is “In Pulverum Speramus.” My schoolboy latin tells me this reads something like “We hope in the dust.” (Perhaps Paul will tell us the “why” of this title?) His work has a way of finding corners in the Ariana. Remember his spider?

Nice day! Lunch with surprises! But then the Ariana has a way of serving up surprises.

Meeting Susan Gunn

I am due to meet Susan Gunn at the opening of her new exhibition at Mandells gallery in Norwich. I look around. The canvases are stylish. The whole show is calming. The press dossier tells me that Susan was born into a Bolton mining family in 1965 and that she gained an Art Degree at Norwich. It details countless exhibitions, commissions and prizes including, in 2006, the Sovereign European Painting Prize.

Susan Gunn 1

Friends and admirers arrive. Journalists vie for Susan’s attention. She has that rare quality of being able to soak up admiration whilst making it all feel like friendship. Fortunately for me, she is generous with her time. I tell her that Talking Beautiful Stuff is about the narrative behind beautiful stuff that creative people do. She allows me to dig a bit. Her own narrative of the journey from Bolton to Mandell’s is recounted with lucidity and modesty. It is an eye-watering story of talent and success winning over loss and sadness.

A “special gift for art” was noticed by a school teacher. She went on to, and soon dropped out of, Bolton Art School. She set up a successful wedding dress company. She fell in love. She moved to Norwich. She married. She became a student again. She became a mother. She lost her daughter. She suffered an immense grief. She managed to pick up both herself and her family life. She then returned to painting.

Her most recent accomplishment is a commissioned 20 metre work for the Enterprise Centre at the University of East Anglia (“one of the greenest and most sustainable buildings in Europe.”) “Terra Memoria I S,” a smaller version, is part of this exhibition.

Susan Gunn 2

“Terra Memoria I S,” Natural pigments, wax and gesso on canvas 200 cm x 40 cm (approx) 2015

I ask Susan what three words apply best to her work. “Earth, infinity..” she reflects for a few seconds “.. and death.” She talks about how her father couldn’t remove all the coal dust from under his fingernails, the near-spirituality of whiteness, her ritual polishing of a certain grave stone and how, with her work, she aims to forge a link between age-old techniques, things primitive, nature and contemporary painting. Everything is rational. There is no artspeak.

Susan Gunn 5

“Divided Ground: Square II,” Natural pigments, wax and gesso on canvas 150 cm x 70 cm (approx) 2015

All her paintings carry a visual theme of natural colours with polished surfaces riven with cracks. The appeal is immediate; some fundamental matter is fractured but nevertheless holds together. There is a promise of recreation; of good things. The contrast between the clean crisp lines, the colours and the organic, complex forms is mesmerising. I am drawn into a kind of imaginary space where Susan insists that I stop and reflect on the cracking paint of a lovely old shed or sun-dried riverside mud. My imagination advances; the cracked paint and the fissured mud are cleanly cut into precise rectangles on her studio floor.

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“Divide Ground: Orchid Yellows,” Natural pigments, wax and gesso on canvas 70 cm x 70 cm (approx) 2013

I ask Susan about her influences. Top of the list is Alberto Burri who executed a number of “cracked” paintings in the 1970s. The process that Susan has mastered involves age-old materials and techniques. She employs a traditional gesso made of chalk and an authentic glue binder. Its propensity to crack is usually regarded as an undesired flaw. However, she remembers the thrill when she first noticed the complex beauty of fissures appearing in her paint. This was her moment. This was a recall of past, earthy and heartfelt things. Since, she has learnt how the apparent randomness of the cracks in her gesso can, to an extent, be pre-determined by the tension in the canvas, the amount of water in the mix and the ambient room temperature. The natural pigments include coal dust (unsurprisingly,) cochineal, lapis lazuli and suffolk linseed. The final stage involves grinding and waxing the surface by hand.

As we talk, I look around at her paintings. The highs and lows of her life, the evolution of her process and the aesthetic outcome of that process are three intertwined and interdependent strands of one uplifting narrative; one strand can only be appreciated in the light of the other two. Inevitably, I become another admirer of Susan Gunn and her work. Meeting her is a rare privilege.