By Tucker Neel
Originally publihed in The L.A. Alternative Press, Vol. 5, September 4, 2006, 6.
While previewing L.A.C.M.A.’s David Hockney Portraits, the first museum exhibition dedicated solely to this artist’s investigation into portraiture, I was struck by the feeling that I’d seen this before, a feeling I get whenever I look at Hockney’s work. I don’t mean this in the pejorative sense at all. I only mean to say that his work contains a seemingly endless stream of art historical references and that, when confronted with any number of his paintings, I feel like I’m flipping through the pages of a survey book on Modern Art. His influence is widespread and his importance as a major artist of both the 20th and now 21st Century is undeniable.
Born in Yorkshire, England in 1937, Hockney began his art career at a young age. By the time he was in his mid-20s he already had gallery representation, was winning prestigious awards and producing sold-out solo shows. After moving to Los Angeles in the mid-’60s he began depicting the subjects he has become famous for, like swimming pools, modernist architecture and wealthy, tanned art collectors all unapologetically painted in the crisp clear light typical of Southern California. His work also unabashedly champions a loving, observant and celebratory homosexual gaze. After moving to L.A., he created his famous paintings of young bronzed naked men diving into and emerging from crystal clear blue swimming pools, including the now iconographic Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, which is prominently featured in the LACMA show. His artistic career has been punctuated by startling twists and turns in artistic techniques, media, and subject matter. He has painted everything from rich Beverly Hills housewives to gay lovers, abstract geometric forms to monumental canvases of the Grand Canyon and Mullholland Drive. He has designed stage sets for operas and has embarked on innovative photographic projects designed to mimic the sporadic movement of the human eye, calling attention to cubist picture planes and collage techniques. Yet despite his varying styles and subjects, each of his prolific bodies of work remains fresh and personal.
Hockney’s work resonates because it samples from different art historical epochs while at the same time maintaining a contemporary statement imbued with his own world view, grounded a in specific time and place.
For example, Hockney’s small drawing of Celia in A Black Dress with White Flowers from 1972 looks like it could have been drawn by any number of turn-of-the-century French masters, namely the Lilliputian Toulouse Lautrec, famous for his depictions of angular female bodies decked out in high shouldered cabaret dresses in the Moulin Rouge. Spend awhile perusing Hockney’s many sketchbooks, which have also been digitized and appear on a computer touch-screen (a fantastic idea on the part of the museum), and it becomes apparent that he really hasn’t shackled himself to any specific style. The sketchbooks testify to the fact that a great artist doesn’t have to keep painting the same thing over and over again. In fact, Hockney’s wandering eye and almost schizophrenic hand are some of his best assets.
A few of Hockney’s Twelve Portraits After Ingres
In a completely separate room, his Twelve Portraits After Ingres in a Uniform Style directly acknowledges his indebtedness to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the great 19th century French Neoclassical portraitist and his use of the camera lucida, a device that allows for an artist to trace a projection of and object with stunning accuracy, sort of like your great great great grandpa’s version of an overhead projector. Despite being a rather antiquated device by today’s standards, Hockney used the camera lucida to create the portraits for the series. In a noticeable departure from his portraits of upper-class members of the art and business world, the Twelve Portraits punctuate the show with carefully drawn, almost reverent depictions of museum guards, people whose jobs often are overlooked and undervalued by the art world. It is also interesting to note that this series includes some of the few portraits Hockney has painted of sitters whom he doesn’t know on an intimate level, as either long-term friends, lovers, business associates, or family members.
Van Gough’s La Mousme
Hockney’s iconic portrait of Divine, the multi-talented drag queen of John Waters’ movie fame, stands out in as a marvel of artistic sampling. Here Divine sits sans gaudy wig, makeup and dress, with his bald head turned towards the viewer, one pronounced eyebrow raised in a knowing and almost enlightened regard. The chalky cerulean blue and washed out pink in Divine’s robe looks as though they could have been lifted directly from the verticle stripes in the background of Matisse’s painting of The Artist’s Studio. Additionally, the ebullient wallpaper consisting of radiating diagonal brushstrokes directly behind Divine conjures up the contrasting ultramarine blue and cadmium red colors appropriated, perhaps, from a billowing polka dot dress in Van Gough’s La Mousme. This assimilation of decorative elements with the subject matter of the painting, a portrait of a larger-than-life drag queen who himself dared to push boundaries while celebrating desire and a revolutionary playfulness, resonates today as a magnificent example of “queer” portraiture.
For “chromophobes,” afraid of color, Hockney’s portraiture may seem a bit garish at its best, threatening at its worst. Overwhelming color and decorative patterning in painting and film have historically threatened the heterosexist art world establishment. These persons can’t stand the idea of the feminine “infecting” traditional masculine aesthetics. I think it gives them hives and makes them long for the good-ol-days when “men were men and women were just the nude models.” Thus, richly patterned quilts and tapestries, hand made crafts, the results of “women’s work,” as well as the pattern and decoration of so-called “primitive” societies, have been, until very recently, relegated to the family wardrobe and the anthropology department respectively. This resistance to a feminine “contamination” underlies a homophobic distain for overtly colorful persons who themselves blur traditional gender roles.
Take a trashy drag queen best known for eating dog shit and immortalize him in rich vibrant color, surround his portrait with a gold frame and you bet that hardly anyone is going to want to hang it alongside a presidential portrait. After all, this painting of Divine, while not being overtly confrontational, certainly commands the attention of the viewer and threatens to shock the calm whiteness of any solemn interior, be it a modernist home or a museum.
Quite possibly the most important aspect of Hockney’s portraits is that they exist as an expression of the human desire to arrest time, cheat death, and preserve the subject for eternity. I, for one, am exceedingly happy that Divine’s likeness will remain intact and preserved for the entire world to see, should they want to enter the museum. The painting keeps the man alive, if only as a fleeting glance. And the other portraits in the show attempt to create this timelessness as well, some more successfully than others. While some of the paintings are dated by their subject matter– the inclusion of a shag carpet, bellbottom pants, or a particular hairstyle– some paintings, like a portrait of Charles Falco from 2005, purposefully attempt to avoid being emblematic of a specific time period.
Charles Falco is a physicist who specializes in quantum optics. As Hockney’s scientific collaborator, he has been helping the artist investigate the use of the camera lucida throughout the history of painting. In his portrait we see the scientist in a Spartan interior seated in a crimson chair, his leather bag on the floor to his left, a waist-high gray table to his right. On top of the table rests a puzzling set of conjoined white quadrilaterals outlined in murky green brushstrokes. These odd shapes seem to suggest the outline of a laptop computer. I asked Falco, who, along with many of Hockney’s other portrait subjects was present for the exhibition preview, what exactly these shapes were meant to represent. He confirmed my suspicions about the laptop, adding that his computer is an integral part of his relationship with the artist, so it made sense to include it in the painting. As to why the computer wasn’t rendered in full, Falco said, “He (Hockney) just didn’t finish the painting.” After further discussion he changed his answer slightly, noting that by not painting the laptop, Hockney allowed the painting to resist being pinned down to a specific time period. According to Falco, “Painting the laptop would have been like painting a cell phone in the eighties.” Perhaps this gesture implies that Hockney wants his paintings to remain timeless, that he wants them to live alongside the many works by artists he himself admires and borrows from so liberally.
Usually when I look at a painting and see signs of another artist’s work, sampled techniques and borrowed palettes, I tend to lose interest. Sometimes it’s better just to go back to the original. However, with Hockney’s work this sampling keeps my eyes and mind alive. As an artist who has spent his life depicting the people places, and things that mean a great deal to him, Hockney has certainly come to know the meaning of intimate observation. He has represented what he loves in countless ways by embracing a variety of contemporary subjects while at the same time drawing from multiple art historic sources, creating timeless images whose fluidity and engagement will undoubtedly continue to influence the work of future artists.