Friday 17 February 2012

Can’t see the wood for the trees?

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, Royal Academy, London

David Hockney has played stellar roles as the 1960s wonder boy from the Royal College of Art, the Pop Art portraitist to the court of Swinging London, the depicter of lush, Californian and pre-AIDS gay urbanity. We don’t associate him with the work of attempting to show the English countryside. This exhibition makes us look at both the painter and the pastoral in a new light.

Why? Because this exhibition consists mainly of work produced over the past eight years, showing landscapes inspired by the Yorkshire countryside which Hockney - born in Bradford in 1937 - knew in his youth, and which, for personal reasons, he has been revisiting over the past decade or so. It shows daily variations of light and weather conditions and the cycles of growth and decay as the seasons change. But there are three problems with this exhibition. The first - more of the other two later - being that there is so much material here we feel as if we’re in danger of becoming overwhelmed in an almost impenetrable forest. We literally can’t see the wood for the trees. Which paintings here help us to navigate this pastoral pleasure-ground?

‘Three Trees near Thixendale, Summer 2007’, shows bulging trees leaping out towards us like boxers’ gloved fists punching towards their opponents, while ‘Hawthorn Blossom near Rudston, 2000’, shows these vast shrubs lining the approach to an arch, giving it an air of mystery. ‘The Big Hawthorn 2008’, shows a hawthorn as a great, menacing block writhing with barely-restrained, almost exploding, curves. ‘Winter Timber, 2009’, gives us batches of cut logs ready for transportation down a country road where, because of the oncoming dusk we see in the distance, the grass is darkened by the changing light (more about the logs and the use of colour in a moment). ‘Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 & 29 November 2006’ (2006), a composite painting of six canvasses, shows the trees with the last vestiges of autumn as their remaining leaves wait to be shed.

Staying in the winter, ‘A Closer Winter Tunnel February-March 2006’ shows a tree-lined track leading towards pale grass which has about it a hint of spring freshness - and of coming growth. ‘Arrival of Spring in Woldgate East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven)’ gives us a selection of paintings on this theme, including two having forest roads with red triangular warning signs of riders. Yet these man-made signs don’t feel intrusive - they show that the forests are places of human activity, not dead. ‘The Road across the Wolds, 1997’, shows us a road curving through hills, a scene made familiar by Hockney from his pictures of the Hollywood Hills. But here the road is quiet, the hills cultivated, and the silence only likely to be broken - if at all- by a tractor rather than a sports car or celebrity-bearing stretch limousine.

Hockney has experimented with technology in some of his previous work and he continues to do so here. So Woldgate is also shown on a series of iPad sketches, but their small size robs them of the impact of the wall-mounted pictures. There is also digital filmwork from 2008 showing leaves in continuous movement, but again, these lack the effectiveness of painting. The film is moving continuously, whilst the paintings capture a moment to which we can return and contemplate endlessly. But the countryside isn’t the only form of landscape the exhibition deals with.

As the exhibition’s title suggests, Hockney wants us show us size here. ‘Salts Mill, Saltaire, Yorkshire, 1997’ shows the long mill building with Romanesque features dwarfing nearby houses and narrow streets while a series of pictures inspired by Claude Lorrain’s painting ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ (1656) culminates in ‘A Bigger Message’ (2010). Here, Hockney shows us Christ preaching from a solid orangey-red rock to the crowd below, the majority of onlookers paying attention whilst a few are having private conversations. But it is the countryside which predominates here, and so must be our main concern because of the artistic issues (problems) it raises.

If the amount of material is the exhibition’s first (solvable) problem, the second is its content. Why? That can be summed-up in one word - Constable. Anyone – however accomplished they are as a painter - who endeavours to paint the English countryside has to take the risk of having his or her work evaluated against that of the great Suffolk master. (And this is not only because Constable captured his subject-matter with such brilliance: he also depicted the sheer hard human agricultural work which went on within it – no-one can accuse him of promoting pastoral prettiness.) Sensibly, Hockney doesn’t try to solve this problem by competing with Constable but instead offers his own view of the countryside with a use of bright, almost garish, colours. And this is where the third problem with this exhibition comes - the way in which some of these colours have been used do not seem to give a strictly accurate representation of the countryside: for instance, some of the logs in ‘Winter Timber, 2009’ are orange. They give rise to the unfortunate impression that - artistically speaking - Hockney hasn’t completely shaken the bright, glitz-gilded dust of Los Angeles off his palette.

But Hockney may have good reasonsf or the way he has used colour a little too, well, colourfully. First, he may feel that changing light shows colour at its most vivid, and that this is something he wishes to emphasise. Second, in recent decades the self-appointed guardians of what’s considered to be correct in art have consigned landscape painting into the outer darkness: it’s just about OK to admire Constable - grudgingly, from a distance, as it were – because of his status as a genius, but any further appreciation of such art has been regarded as a no-no. Additionally, they have subjected depicting the English landscape to an extra form of criticism - a hefty dose of inverse snobbery. If you like the English countryside you are considered to be a (weekend) painterly equivalent of a Little Englander whose work is good only for exhibiting in suburban art galleries or well-meaning public library displays of local artists.

Of course, there is no way Hockney can be accused of being any of these things. And one suspects that he has a provincial wariness - and scepticism - about what fancy metropolitan opinion-formers think is artistically valid. Nevertheless, he may want to make the countryside stand out, and has adopted an in-your-face approach to colour in order to do this. The English countryside may not be exactly as he depicts it. But Hockney, the radical realist - with his ever-fresh mind and watchful eye - makes us sit up and take notice of it.

Till 9 April 2012

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