ARTS: Hockney's Sunday best
It's fashionable in critical circles to disparage David Hockney because he's famous. Never mind that, says Tom Lubbock, our most famous painter just doesn't seem able to paint any more
Tuesday 06 May 1997
After all, it's not exactly Hockney's fault that he's an attractive and articulate personality, nor that the ways he paints are not particularly "difficult" nor particularly "advanced". These are points on which you could well take a negative view, if you wanted to, without much animus. The trouble is that some people feel they've heard just too many conversations and read too many newspaper articles in which Hockney is treated as the very model of the modern British painter. So they get mean.
And if you're up for being provoked in this way, there's been plenty of occasion lately. Hockney turned 60 this year and our media have hardly let the event slip by them. Add to that, he's got a new lot of work on show, Flowers, Faces and Spaces at the Annely Juda Gallery, his largest exhibition of paintings in London since the Tate retrospective more than 10 years ago. It's drawing good audiences. All right, I'm getting to feel a bit mean myself.
For the truth is, without the name, there wouldn't be such cause to write these pictures up. They aren't very good, and they aren't very good in perfectly normal ways. And I wonder, if their now appreciative viewers were to ask themselves honestly how many of these paintings would stand out from the packed walls of the RA Summer Exhibition - how many of them, viewed blind, would actually get selected? - whether they wouldn't reach a disappointing answer. I'll look at the flower-paintings first.
Hockney is always renewing his act, and this is certainly another departure. I think it's his first body of work painted completely in earnest. It doesn't beguile the viewer with any show of wit. There's no conscious playing with styles or picture-conventions. There are none of those deft and inventive formulas for the visible world that Hockney has so often coined in the past. This is painting straight from life observed.
More than that, it takes some evident risks. For one thing, flowers - sunflowers, irises, violets, lilies - are about as unpromising as a subject can be, the epitome of "the beautiful", the Sunday painter's stand-by, but with forbidding artistic precedents too: a subject then that any half- ambitious artist would feel he had to do something unusual with.
A gambit which, in some obvious ways, Hockney declines. His compositions conform exactly to the Sunday painter's still-life: flowers, in pot or vase or bowl, placed on a table-top, against a uniform background, with standard fillers - books, bottles, pieces of fruit - doing the usual balancing act. In earlier pictures Hockney has used flower vases as startling bits of isolated punctuation in a scene: here they stand very four-square.
There are other risks. The pictures are colourful all over, with high- key and high-contrast colours and the minimum of shades and earths and neutrals, and the table tops and backdrops lie in hardly-modulated areas of (for instance) scarlet, aquamarine, golden yellow. And then the painting is pretty free. It's brushwork, rather than any controlling drawing, that makes the going here. And so, in these pictures, every hue and every stroke is on its mettle, to make space and make form, and to work and be alive on its own account too.
Such are the risks; and you could consider these works according to their "unfashionable" ambitions to be both straightforward and uninhibitedly exuberant. There might be things to say on that score. The pictures clearly make a rather crashing intervention in the current debates about "whither painting?" They say a big "Yes" to the art in its most traditional conception - and a show of sheer conviction is always an irresistible argument, however such theories may disagree. There might be things to say - if the conviction was remotely there.
But in fact they leave all arguments exactly where they were. They prove nothing about what painting can do now, and they disprove nothing either. For when you come to specifics, it's hard to know what standards to apply. What is it that these pictures want to do, but don't do? Criticism is pushed into a more or less futile "counterfactual" pursuit, trying to think up imaginary pictures that these pictures aren't but might have been - complete guesswork really, with the occasional good bits in them serving as partial clues.
Is Hockney interested in flowers, for instance? Is he interested in their growth and forms? Not much. The shapes he finds in them - flat or solid - are characterless. There's no surprise in the individual organism, no drama in the relations between them. The only place where there's anything like this is a couple of pictures that have the blooms in glass vases, and the stems jump around in clipped refracted clusters below and above the water line: a touch of the old wit.
And the brushwork? Hockney seems to paint like someone who's just discovered that you can paint in a loose-ish way - do a free jab or blob and recover a likeness from it - without having taken the next step of seeing that strokes can have a drama and economy of their own, can play with or against the forms they describe, can construct shifting palpabilities.
I feel embarrassed to make such an elementary point, as if the artist had just overlooked it, and one would naturally suspect he'd overlooked it in favour of something else. Wildness, perhaps? But the handling isn't the least bit wild. And, true, there are passages where things have more life. There's an elegantly economical rendering of a bottle of Evian water. There's sometimes some juicy substance in a stem, or an interesting contrariety of strokes. But these are very basic virtues. Almost anyone might have brought them off.
Colour is where the paintings must stake their claim, and the colours are undoubtedly bold. But (again obviously) combination and interval are everything. Here, of course, reason is helpless, and I'm reduced to asserting that the colour relationships are nullifying or crass or simply insistent: juxtapositions that stress individual intensities without making any song between them. The result - and I agree it is a result - is a luminosity, but a pointless luminosity, the world made bright as if brightness by itself was the great thing. It's something you can do with colour, but that's all it is.
The faces are more baffling. There are 24 of them, each small and same- sized, hung in two rows of 12, above each other. The portraits of friends and family are very close up in the frames, the faces predominantly red and orange against a chemical-green ground. The first thing you notice is that the individuals don't - as you might expect - jostle against this hugger-mugger formation. They coalesce in a blur. The physiognomies are sluggish and imprecise, built up from (I suppose) deliberately awkward marks, which once or twice - the full- face portrait of his mother, say - get moving. It's barely competent.
None of which, I'm sure, will affect Hockney's standing a jot, and I dare say that doesn't really matter. But anyone holding out for the good old cause of painting had better take their stand quite a long way away from thisn To 19 July. Annely Juda Gallery, London W1 (0171-629 7578)
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