Friday, 9 September 2016

David’s Days in the Hills

Michael Ajerman crashes the Hockney PV at the Royal Academy.

Hollywood and Hollywood not
We are so lively on the spot
Never sold out always in stock
Are you deaf or does this rock?
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sikamikanico

Crashing the opening of David Hockney’s exhibition at the Royal Academy, what is on my mind is not paint but the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Red Hot Chilli Peppers are the premier Californian band. Hockney is still the premier Californian artist regardless of his Bradford roots. 

Both creative forces have made a huge body of work, both have been struck by wins and tragedies, and both are currently being judged a bit too harshly against their own earlier work. It’s like going to see Bob Dylan in concert, even as he approaches 80 we still want the kid with the acoustic guitar, the corduroy and the mumble, even though the corduroy has now been replaced by classy Southern Cowboy fatigues. The 79-year-old Hockney has the same problem. People still fetishize the Bradford Bombshell’s personal image and the art he created in the 1960s and 1970s.

Hockney’s show, 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life has been critically discussed and compared to his large scale painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy from 1970-1971. The idea of the visualisation of a couple as subject is minimised to the individual for this current exhibition and this somehow multiplies the problems. Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy is not a painting about a marriage and an independent feline, but rather a triangle of friendship, emotion and intimacy between Celia Birtwell, Ozzie Clark and Hockney himself. Its complex scale and level of realism seem to bloom outwards, and though not visually included, Hockney’s presence is imbedded. 

Interestingly George Lawson and Wayne Sleep another large scale painting of the 1970s seems to go much further (this and Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy are currently on view at Tate Britain) and in my mind is even stronger than Celia and Ozzie. It is a wonderful display of skill and of unsolvable painterly problems. With pressures mounting, this painting of two men was never finished; Hockney would later comment that there was a ‘crises of realism.’ It stopped, and so did this level/character/approach to image making. This way of painting, dare I call it a style, would never be returned to, no matter the outcry and hope of fandom. People have to understand and accept that a musician, painter or writer cannot keep making the same work 40 years later.  If they do, their work dies. But sometimes fans love to see their heroes fall.

Consciously or unconsciously, Hockney creates large groups of portraits during his transitional periods. In the mid-1980s he made a series of small Van Gogh-y thick oil portraits of friends from direct observation, all done in one sitting. As with this new body of work at the Royal Academy, the reception was mixed. Van Gogh believed in art for the working man and this RA show has a funny socialistic aspect. Everyone is painted equally. The old friends and family, (some that were even painted in those '80s portraits) art world people, the hangers on, the offspring of friends — everyone is looked at for the same exposure. 

Hockney has discussed the process of looking, painting, and observing with vocabulary usually reserved for photographers ever since his Polaroid collages of the 1980s. These new paintings, created in 18-20 hours from looking directly at the subject, create a weird homogeneous feel in regards to detail. Photographs have an even distribution ingrained in them. These works all have that same exposure, this is their pronounced strength and their debilitating weakness. 

People that make paintings will tell you that there is no fixed period of how long a painting will take to reach its completion. There are some that go fast – some creep from days to months. Usually, the demands are imposed onto the subject to sit and sit until completion. In this exhibition this is reversed, the deal has been made for the sessions, and the painter needs to get on with it. The clock is ticking, and at 79 no one knows this better than David Hockney himself.

So why the hell acrylic and not oil paint? As the portraits are done in a succession of three days back-to-back, oil paint would not work as they would not completely dry overnight. This would have made the paintings a resolved image more to do with the final hours of the sitting than the accumulative exposure of the 20 hours. The acrylic modulation of marks creates a stylistic bridge to Hockney’s approach to drawing with an iPad. Mark-making slowly interacting with the previous decisions, nothing bleeding or dissolving into previous marks.

The distribution of work in the exhibition space is truly an art installation in the most conceptual sense. This is not a hung show, but a show that has been edited and curated to fit the space, evenly and specifically. The initial painting of his assistant JP will always be much more tense and taut than the others. The painting of Celia Birtwell is vicious and loving at the same time, watching Birtwell pretend to hit Hockney during a BBC news interview solidifies this fact. The three portraits of friend Bing McGilvray seem to anchor the passage of time. The paintings of gallerists and curators smell of awkward, backhanded deals being cajoled during the painting breaks. Some people dressed to the nines and others in their everyday casual California sunshine outfits. Sadly there is little flesh to be seen from men or women, no one takes their top off, or even their shoes.

Back to crashing the private view, the most interesting thing was seeing so many sitters in front of their portraits. It was all very real, especially when the Hockney family members were involved. Some sitters were being photographed professionally, others passing their iPhones to friends to take their picture in front of their painting. One sitter, dressed lavishly in the painting and for the opening, seemed to revel in the attention, though I don’t think Hockney had grasped her gaze or her English Rose cheekbones. 

Dressed in Chaplin sized khakis and a killer blue cardigan, orangey-yellow shirt combo, Hockney strolled and chatted through the show, talking in earnest, especially to the subjects that had come to see themselves upon these Mayfair walls. A tall Royal Academy guard-cum-bouncer was always three steps away, keeping an eye on the crowd that grew and grew.  What comes next will, as always will be, Hockney’s own decision, which is why we keep looking. Though why a painter would want to paint shiny black dress shoes in acrylic is beyond me.

And all the press, you don't amaze me
I'm not your dick so don't appraise me
Never gonna fit your critical shit
You better watch out, you might get hit
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sikamikanico

Michael Ajerman

David Hockney
82 Portraits and 1 Still Life
Royal Academy, London
2 July - 2 October 2016

Sikamikanico is the B-side of Under The Bridge

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