New Hock­ney ex­hi­bi­tion

‘He can churn out paint­ings like this in his sleep’

The Daily Telegraph - - Front Page - Mark Hud­son Un­til Oct 2. De­tails: 020 7300 5615; roy­ala­cademy.org.uk

David Hock­ney may have sprung to fame as a pop artist, but he has come to be re­garded as the great cham­pion of tra­di­tional artis­tic val­ues. The Six­ties won­der boy, now 78 and ar­guably Bri­tain’s great­est liv­ing artist, bangs on end­lessly about the value of draw­ing and hard ob­ser­va­tion. He has pub­lished stud­ies of the tech­niques of the Old Masters, and much of his work th­ese days falls into tra­di­tional gen­res. Yet while this ex­hi­bi­tion presents it­self as an ex­er­cise in one of them – the por­trait – it is in many ways as much a piece of pop art as any­thing Hock­ney has done, fea­tur­ing a host of faux-naive touches and zing­ing colour.

The 82 works here were all painted over a pe­riod of two years under iden­ti­cal con­di­tions in Hock­ney’s LA stu­dio, and each por­trait was done in just three days on iden­ti­cally sized can­vases.

The sub­jects, who in­clude well­known fig­ures such as ar­chi­tect Frank Gehry, co­me­dian Barry Humphries and tex­tile de­signer Celia Birtwell, as well as Hock­ney’s as­sis­tants and neigh­bours, all sit in the same pale yel­low chair, po­si­tioned on a turquoise floor with a blue back­ground, or a blue floor with a turquoise back­ground.

The ef­fect as you walk into the Royal Academy’s Sack­ler Gallery is stun­ning: the paint­ings, hung on deep Vene­tian red walls, seem to glow from within: the turquoises and blues re­ally jump out, and the faces tend to show bright pink against th­ese high-key back­grounds. Yet this ex­u­ber­ant, al­most over­whelm­ing im­pres­sion, rapidly wears off. The ex­hi­bi­tion as a whole is in­stead char­ac­terised by a slightly numb­ing com­pe­tence.

Hock­ney, we know, can churn out paint­ings like this in his sleep. In­deed, if it wasn’t for the jolt­ing ef­fect of the height­ened colour, we’d prob­a­bly be nod­ding off our­selves. Th­ese paint­ings don’t draw you in, but keep you at a con­sis­tent dis­tance. A char­ac­ter­is­tic ex­pres­sion is deftly cap­tured, but there’s lit­tle be­yond that. Look­ing at the paint­ings of peo­ple I’ve met is par­tic­u­larly dis­may­ing, whether it’s the mask-like vis­age given to for­mer RA cu­ra­tor Sir Nor­man Rosen­thal or the de­tached, jour­ney­man car­i­ca­ture of writer and Daily Tele­graph con­trib­u­tor Martin Gay­ford.

Look­ing closely at the paint­ings is re­veal­ing in that there’s of­ten al­most noth­ing there. A mouth and a cheek or the fold of a shirt over a stom­ach are in­di­cated with the thinnest of lines and bits of cack-handed wash. That isn’t bad in it­self; the il­lu­sion­is­tic side of paint­ing, the dif­fer­ent ways artists con­jure re­al­ity from bits of can­vas, pa­per and paste have been pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of Hock­ney’s from the be­gin­ning of his ca­reer.

There is en­ter­tain­ment value in the scale, sub­ject mat­ter and con­cep­tion of this ex­hi­bi­tion. Yet I walked through it un­sure whether to be more im­pressed by Hock­ney’s abil­ity to phys­i­cally pull the whole thing off or more ap­palled at the fun­da­men­tal lack of am­bi­tion – that an artist of his abil­ity is not try­ing to push into riskier, more dif­fi­cult ter­ri­tory at this late stage in his ca­reer.

In­deed, the show’s most per­plex­ing im­age is the first, in which Hock­ney’s as­sis­tant, Jean-Pierre Gon­calves de Lima, sits with his head in his hands in the ex­act pos­ture of the fig­ure in van Gogh’s fa­mous Sor­row­ing Old Man.

Is this a vain at­tempt to equate Hock­ney’s por­traits with gen­uinely great art or an homage to the all-ornoth­ing per­sonal state­ment he hasn’t been able to make him­self? I very much hope it’s the lat­ter.

Vivid: Hock­ney’s por­traits of Barry Humphries, left, and Ru­fus Hale

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