Visual Arts: No one home

Visiting Hockney's latest show is like stepping aboard the Mary Celeste: the dachsunds are there - and the ghost of Picasso - but, beneath the camouflage of colours, the artist himself has gone missing. By Andrew Graham-Dixon
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The Independent Culture
Underneath a red chaise-longue on a wedge of blue carpet in the large but unpeopled living room of a luxurious modern house a dachsund with blank and baleful eyes malingers. Close by another dachsund sleeps, oblivious to the faintly oppressive atmosphere in here. There is a bottle of wine but no glasses on a sideboard and a black grand piano, unplayed, stands in the background.

David Hockney painted Montcalm Interior at Seven o'clock in 1988. It hangs at the heart of "You Make the Picture" at Manchester City Art Galleries, an exhibition of paintings and prints made by Hockney between 1982 and 1995. Montcalm Interior is a lonely and melancholic work, despite the sensual Matissean bluster of Hockney's colour; and despite the slightly forced Cubistic exuberance with which space has been telescoped and an array of patterns - an orange-striped floor and a blue-striped floor and orange and red rafters above - have been juxtaposed with one another. It is a busy painting but all its busyness, the saturated yellow and red and green, the herringbone of stripes adjacent, cannot disguise the emptiness at its centre. There is no one home and life is at a standstill.

Hockney in his later years has let it be known that his chief preoccupation is space. There are those who may feel, as they contemplate paintings such as this one, or his multi-panelled panoramic collages of photographs - Kodacolor Cezannes of subjects such as Zion Canyon, Utah, October 1982, or Pearblossom Highway, 11-18 April 1986 - that Hockney was a more interesting artist when he thought less about the nature of representation and more about sex. The vigour, the wit, the pathos and the beauty of early works like The Third Love Painting are now nothing but a memory. There are no love paintings at all in this exhibition and not much evidence of any other feeling - aside from a few sentimental declarations of the artist's affection for dogs, and several homages in which he expresses his passion for the artists of the past.

The ornately framed Study for Chair 4 is an unabashed tribute to Van Gogh's two famous 1888 paintings, Van Gogh's Chair and Gauguin's Chair. It contains vestiges of Hockney's old elegance and energy, but they are only vestiges, and, like so much of his work now, the painting seems stifled by the artist's own sense of belatedness. A few years ago, while being interviewed in Florence, Hockney said he was glad he did not live in Italy. "It would be hard to paint here," he remarked. "It would be difficult not to be burdened by the weight of history." But living and working in history-less Los Angeles has not greatly helped him in this respect. Indeed, it would be difficult to think of a painter whose work seems more burdened by the weight of what has come before than that of Hockney. The art-historical past that haunts him is recent rather than distant, being Post-Impressionist, Fauve and, above all, Cubist. Looking at his recent works, it is plain that the ghost of Picasso has been constantly at Hockney's shoulder, whispering mischievous and unhelpful suggestions into his hearing aid. It would not be fair to say that he has been paralysed by his enormous admiration for Picasso, because Hockney remains an extremely prolific artist. But he has been alienated by that admiration from almost all that made him so distinctive as an artist in his youth. He has become less like himself and more like others as he has grown older.

His Cubistic interiors occasionally retain slight echoes of the delicacy and immediacy of the young Hockney's draughtsmanship. But his more recent pictures of cones and spheres and twists of orange peel pirouetting in abstract circumstances, which seem indebted to Picasso's Surrealist works, are devoid even of that small sad degree of nostalgic vitality. They have an inert and lumpen quality, the worst of them being the largest, a painting 20-feet wide called Extending Path, the imagery in which suggests a quantity of ear trumpets crushed by a steamroller. It was perhaps intended as some kind of experiment conducted into the nature of pictorial space. But the experiment was not successful and the picture is almost as incoherent as the elderly Willem de Kooning's terminal blatherings.

The photographic collages are among the better things Hockney has done during the past 15 years because they do occasionally manage to evoke some slight sense of the wonder with which the artist claims daily to confront the world. The flickering gridded sky in Pearblossom Highway, formed from myriad photographs taken over a period of a week, has a wide and fractured beauty to it. But this beauty is the result of a process, not the product of Hockney's own hand. The photocollages have, besides, an inadvertent confessional quality, being full of little clues - rather like Freudian slips - to the depressed state of mind of their creator. In the corner of Place Furstenburg, August 7, 8, 9, 1985, a work made in Paris, we see a sign pointing towards the "Atelier Delacroix" - a metaphor, perhaps, for Hockney's sense that real art lies outside the compass of his own current work, being somewhere out of frame or somewhere in the past. Pearblossom Highway focuses on a junction in California where, three times, the road signs advise "Stop Ahead", which may be taken as an indication of the artist's awareness that he has reached some form of terminus. Gas Pump, 21-25 April 1986 depicts exactly what its title describes on some Mobil forecourt somewhere in California, possibly reflecting Hockney's subconscious fear that he is running on empty.

It is at times difficult to concentrate on the works in this exhibition because of a curious droning noise in the air. This turns out to be the voice of the artist himself, as captured for posterity in an interview for television, conducted by Melvyn Bragg and recorded in 1981 for London Weekend Television's The South Bank Show. This is being shown on continuous loop in a kind of side chapel to the exhibition galleries. The interview itself is engaging. Indeed, the bulk of the audience in Manchester (who probably value him, anyway, more as a phenomenon than as an artist) clearly find Hockney discussing Picasso with Bragg far more intriguing than they find Hockney discussing Picasso with Hockney, in the confines of the studio. This is understandable. Talking about his enthusiasms, he is far more believable than when he is painting them, and that seems to be the core of the problem. Hockney was once a painter with a thirst for new knowledge and experience. Now he has become an autodidact first and foremost, a man whose interest in complex (or perhaps not so complex) theories of perspective has almost entirely displaced his interest in making pictures. There is another possibility, which is that Hockney's relentless theorising - never can an artist have talked more about art than he - is a smokescreen devised to hide the vanishing of his own sense of vocation. The Sturm und Drang painter and aphorist Henry Fuseli once memorably described Leonardo da Vinci as "an intellectual libertine who wasted life, insatiate, in experiment". In the case of Hockney, the waste may not have been quite as great, but it now seems just as complete.

Hockney's contemporary Anthony Green, meanwhile, has an exhibition of recent paintings, sculptures and other constructions at the Wolsey Art Gallery in Ipswich. Green's shaped canvases, generally of himself and his wife Mary in various states of undress, have long had the rare distinction of being almost impossible to overlook even in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. His concerns are no more eccentric or personal than those of Hockney. Like Hockney, he expresses a strident belief in the inadequacy of Albertian perspective, and has devised all kinds of pictorial strategies to defeat what he perceives as its limitations. Like Hockney, he draws his subject matter from his domestic circumstances (except that, where Hockney paints dachsunds under chaises-longues, Green paints his wife reclining upon them in her underwear). Yet he is generally regarded as a somewhat marginal figure in the British art world. This will doubtless change and he will, one day, be regarded as a central figure in that British tradition of 20th-century artists (Eric Gill, Stanley Spencer) to have deliberately chosen to work at the margins of 20th-century art.

Green has spoken of his desire "to paint adolescence, bicycles, carpets, dog, Eric, failure, Greens, hair, irritation, kisses, Mary, nasturtiums, optimism, penises, quiet, roses, sexuality, tenderness, unities... and much, much more..." In Ipswich, this project of immersive autobiography may be seen to continue apace. The shaped canvas appeals to Green because it allows him to overflow his compositions with narrative and descriptive addenda, and to weave his fantasies inextricably with his realities. In 27th Wedding Anniversary / Breakfast in Bed we see middle-aged Mary and Anthony together in bed, each with laden tray on lap; below them, on the wall that they face but which has been peeled backwards by the painter to face us too, we see Mr and Mrs Green as they were back on their wedding day, him in black and her in white, diving back out into the world through the eyes of a painting of Green by Green. All of his pictures aspire to the condition of the image in the mirror in Van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage, where domestic space has suddenly been opened out and distorted to reveal the unexpected or the undreamed of.

One school of critics has chosen to see Green as the satirist of a domesticity he only pretends to celebrate, citing the plainness of his painting technique and the slightly stifling quality of the Green idyll as justifications for their view. This seems increasingly unlikely. Green's paintings are physically curved but otherwise straight in their relish for marital intimacy. A bathroom votary, the painter attends his foam-wreathed beloved in the tub, sponge in hand. The corn ripens in the field and flowers bloom in fountains of vulgar blossom while Anthony feels Mary up in a hundred different ways in a hundred different places. The fullness of these pictures is a form of lubricity. Anthony Green, Little Englander in devotion at the shrine of his wife's sexuality, is reminiscent of Stanley Spencer worshipping at the feet of Patricia Preece - the difference being, of course, that we know Anthony is getting what Stanley mostly just yearned for n

`You Make the Picture', an exhibition of David Hockney's paintings and prints between 1982-1995, is at Manchester City Art Galleries until 2 Feb (0161-236 5244). An exhibition of recent paintings by Anthony Green is at Wolsey Art Gallery, Ipswich, to 12 Jan (01473 253246).

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