David Hockney is quintessentially British and so is the queue to get into his exhibition. Who knows why as a country we are so good at waiting patiently in line, what I do know is that we are world leaders. What is interesting with blockbuster exhibition is generally the longer the reported queue the more everyone wants to join it. After long snaking wait was it worth it?
All the people in the queue had to go somewhere and that obviously is the gallery. The show occupied huge rooms, all heaving with people. It felt like being in one of Thomas Struth’s gallery images, I half expected to see the man himself except it would have been a struggle to fit his camera in (more on him later) . The much famed gallery rage seemed low apart from the man cursing to himself ‘fucking backpack wearers’ as he jostled with the masses.
The landscapes in the first room underwhelm, the word childlike even came to mind – surely the human version of snake wasn’t worth it for this? Then you read that they were created from memory, fair play.
Room two host a variety of Hockney’s early imagery including a selection of his famous photocollages . Anyone studying art or photography for GCSE or A level will have no doubt tried such a montage believing them to be easy, only find this not to be the case. They are remarkable feats; his collage of the Grand Canyon seems to give more depth and grandness than the matching painting. Although dating from the late eighties the work feels current and has a real physicality, each join is tangible, a joy to see compared to so many similar digital images where the process is merely automated in Photoshop.
Much of the exhibition then focuses on his Yorkshire landscapes, with different combinations of colours views and seasonal changes, created in a variety of oil, charcoal and watercolour.
One room holds images labeled with dates of their creation, consecutive days appear and it is amazing to see how prolific he is. The sheer volume makes it hard to concentrate; although this room also hosts his most impressive work (The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011) this is when tree fatigue sets in….
Room ten displays paintings images inspired by Claude Lorrain’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ . These image falter, reinforcing that Hockney’s strength lies within his observed landscapes. His huge re-imaging of the original lacks boldness and flare instead it looks like a less talented painter copying the original.
Despite this the best part of the exhibition reveals itself in the next room, marking a return to trees. The darkened room is home to Hockney’s video work and an audience hypnotized by a wall of screens. The video is hard to describe and so quick look at this link will give you a better idea of the content, unfortunately not the quality, like any great installation based artwork you have to see it in the flesh.
In summary two videos are played simultaneously. Each is made up of a grid of nine screens. The grid relates to the grid of nine car-mounted cameras used to create the work. One video takes the viewer on a extremely slow journey towards and through the ‘Tunnel’. The Tunnel is a dense growth of trees that encloses the road below, a natural scene and the subject to many earlier paintings. Amazingly seasons change as the viewer progresses through the Tunnel.
The experience was akin to seeing Struth’s ‘Paradise’ at the White Chapel Gallery last year. I sat there in a similar state of awe: the sheer scale, detail and colour made for an incredible sight .The bold palette of his oil paintings is unexpectedly present in this English landscape. The detail is like a living breathing large format landscape. This room alone makes the extensive queue a distant memory.
The show consciously ends on Hockney’s ipad images of Yosemite, showing his willing not only to embrace new technology but also pioneer its use. These images are surprisingly giant in size and look just as impressive as his paintings at distance. On closer inspection however they are very flat, the ipad lacking paints texture and the brushes variety in strokes and mark making. Rather than ending on a low this merely suggests that better is yet to come.
The exhibition and its public response cements Hockney as of one our most treasured artists. With the recent deaths of Lucian Freud and Cy Twombly he may even be our greatest living painter. However what is most important and why a photography magazine reviewed his exhibition, is that despite his fame and age he constantly evolves his practice and that is something that we all can learn from.
‘David Hockney A Bigger Picture’ at the RA ends on the 9th of April and is sure to be at capacity, if you miss it and his video work is shown anywhere else in a similar capacity I strongly advise you to go and see it!