Enjoying David Hockney, the Whizz Kid

David Hockney, Current – National Gallery of Victoria

Walk in my shoes for a minute. That headland across the bay now looks different. Yesterday you could cut your finger on its profile as the sun set behind it. Today it is almost floating on the air.

Opalescent purples and apricot tones have replaced the flinty greys. The sea that was flecked with white caps is now like a sheet of galvanized steel. Will the real view – the true view, please stand up? Seeing isn’t as easy as it looks. Or maybe that should read ‘is more complicated’ – and if David Hockney has his way with your visual imagination, far more interesting.

While blessed from youth with a prodigious drawing talent, Hockney has maintained an arm’s length attitude to the act of mark making and figurative representation. This exhibition delivers accordingly.

The imagery is energised with the joy of rendering diverse aspects of the visible world. It also demonstrates in a complementary kind of imagination at work, one which considers what might be taking place when someone looks at something or someone else.

Since the 1980s, when the artist began to significantly incorporate photomechanical processes into image-making, it appeared that his complementary balancing act between looking and thinking about looking had been abandoned in favour of a total focus on using the latest and greatest technologies to manufacture images. But this kind of experimentation has been embedded withinhis practice in some formsince the later 1960s and early 1970s, when he began using a camera as a sketching tool.

The 1980s saw the emergence of collaged Polaroid photographs as a central strategy
to explore systems of perception. From this period to the present, the artist has continued to exploit whatever refinements in image generation and manipulation have come within reach including Polaroid, colour photocopying, fax, computer drawing, digital editing, multiscreen moving images and the use of digital devices particularly theiPhone and iPad.

A recent video documentary on the artist recreated a pivotal memory of riding as a child in the top deck front seat of a bus as it wound through his hometown of Bradford. Hockney loved being up there drinking in all the sights as they whizzed by. He comments, “I always wanted to see more.”

This exhibition is saturated with colour. It seems that the artist is still running from Bradford backstreets and damp, dark, shoe-box backyards. But Hockney remains a Yorkshire lad –“always quite serious”, he says, “but cheeky”.

This goes a long way in explaining his breezy attitude to the act of image making which
initially fooled people into thinking he was a Warhol light weight – big on brittle but thin on content. This Current exhibition is a tease. The first room is crowded with pop-up postersized images created using an iPhone and iPad.

Anything, it seems, that came within the artist’s visual orbit, was pounced on and dashed on the screen in a few gestures. But slow down because thisroom is heartland in terms of expressing the artist’s insatiable curiosity about and fascination with the world around him.

Other experiences await, particularly the magisterial multi-screen moving images work The four seasons, Woldgate Woods (Spring 2011, Summer 2010, Autumn 2010, Winter 2010) and the visual feast of the Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 and Yosemite series. While these works position Hockney as a radical traditionalist, invoking the awefixated traditions of Romantic landscape (while interrogating them with subversive dots and dashes of a digital pen) it is the humbler subjects – discarded shoes, a power point, an abandoned café glass, light through a blind or vase of flowers – that best reveal the generosity and universality of his gaze.

Hockney’s most recent body of work (82 portraits and 1 still-life – a long, long gallery of friends’ portraits) will deliver a true grit experience for those viewers who find their eyes sliding off the Teflon-smooth surfaces of digitised imagery. In the sparse modelling of many faces lurks the mordant gaze of Frank Auerbach, or perhaps Walter Sickert on the prowl. Fans of Hockney’s long-term exploration of systems of rendering pictorial space will be transported by several works, particularly 4 blue stools, a wraparound floor-to-ceiling experience which can be excused its indulgence because it’s lots of fun. Which leaves the Bigger trees near Warter to send everyone out singing.

The back story to its creation (involving the artist working en plein air with ‘real paint’ and digital prints of same) is an absorbing narrative of a balancing act between different dimensions, explorations of time and space, connection with country and so on. But forget that. In its essence it’s a pow pow visual blockbuster which expresses what might have happened if those British mid-war neo-romantics had decided to really take over the gallery. If you believe in triffids this is one scary space.

David Hockney: Current
National Gallery of Victoria
Until March 13
ngv.vic.gov.au