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

It's seldom artists and their work, as such, that generate resentment. It's their fan-clubs. Quite a few people have got it in for David Hockney nowadays, but of course it's really all the attention he receives that gets to them: the fact that he's the only artist that a lot of other people will admit to being fond of, even to having heard of, whose every new development is still tracked with unflagging public interest.

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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935