Monday, 15 May 2017

David Hockney at Tate Britain

David Hockney has a big show on at Tate Britain in London until May 29th 2017. I say big, but to be honest, it didn't actually seem that big. Part of the reason for this is that I found it a little insubstantial, and certainly the first two or three rooms you needn't do more than walk straight through since they are full of art school crap, semi-abstract designs masquerading as painting, and just straightforward bad work.

So I have split up my review into three sections: The Good; The Bad; and The Ugly - or you can just watch/listen to my review on youtube here:

The Good

So, lets start with the good stuff.

Billy and Audrey Wilder, 1982
Billy and Audrey Wilder, 1982
In the 1980's Hockney started experimenting with using photographs as photo-montages that are reminiscent of cubism, and there are a number of portraits in the show which are very effective. The ones I liked the most were the earliest which used Polaroids, something that you will only remember (or even know about) if you are of a certain age, but which, because of the white border surrounding the developed image, lend a prism like effect to the finished works which helps give the impression of looking through the artist's eyes. They also worked particularly well I thought, when compared to the other photographic works because of the colours. The colours of analogue photographs are greatly effected by the processes involved in the images chemical development. That is something that we all had to wrestle with back in the past when analogue photography was all that was available, whereby different film stocks would produce slightly different colours and contrasts, the kinds of differences that you can now synthesize with a tap of your finger on your smart phone, but which, back in the day, you had to decide about well ahead of time. I have to say though that I didn't like as much the later montages that used full frame 35mm photos. Something about them gave the impression more of a scrap book than something deliberately worked on to best effect. The best known of these was of a desert road, which I had seen before and still felt it just looked a little washed out, a little lacking in intensity which the Polaroids do not. There was one rather touching image though, created with the 35mm photos, of his mother looking cold, wet, and dejected at the ruins of some cathedral or church. A nice image, but none of these left me feeling I had seen a great work of art. But the Polaroids definitely left more of an impression.

Moving on, and perhaps the highlight of the show for many people was his video/digital series "The Four Seasons".

The Four Seasons - Winter, 2010
The Four Seasons - Winter, 2010
Imagine going into a square room. On each wall are ranged nine large flat screens in a grid, 3 x 3, each displaying a slightly different view of a country road as you drive slowly down it. You can imagine how this is done by attaching 9 separate cameras to a car, each pointing in a slightly different direction, and recording as you drive. It gives a great impression of the 3-dimensionality of the road, and added to this, the same drive has been made in winter, spring, summer, and autumn, each season on its own wall. And it looks really good and is a great idea. Most peoples favourite is winter, and I have to concur, finding it peaceful, restful, imagining the deadening of the air by the blanket of snow. Good stuff.

Then we move on a little further, and find his i-pad "paintings" which I thought were much better than his "real" paintings. Frankly speaking, he doesn't know how to use paint. Some may find that an extraordinary statement but honestly, paint is there to be used as a medium for expression whereas David Hockney seems to only use it as a means to get colour on a canvas - this is a complaint I have about many an artist who are called painters but who actually cannot paint, they can only colour! But more of that later. His i-pad work doesn't seem to suffer from quite the same problems as his real paintings. My conclusion was that this is mainly to do with the fact that he has far more control over the opacity of the colours used, and there is no argument about texture since digital images have none.

Many of these images you can see him drawing, watching the screen capture as they are created. These seemed quite fascinating to many at the show, whereas for me, not so much, but I am no stranger to this kind of thing since some 15-20 years ago I wrote my own computer program to do just that, and trust me, the novelty soon wares off. Interestingly though, they printed some of these digital images and displayed them above the screens. The prints were not good, far duller and less interesting. The vibrancy of the colours in the digital realm, which of course is how they were originally created, were far more appealing. It is as if something was lost in translation. It is not so easy to create digitally using light, while at the same time creating a work which is just as effective once printed out - I know, having done this myself many times.

The Bad

I have already stated that David Hockney cannot paint. Sure he uses paint, but it is not used to express anything, it is solely a means to an end. The first two or three rooms were full of rubbish. Semi-abstract nonsense purporting to contain some mysticality of art, naive art-school rubbish which, done by any none-famous artist would soon be found only in a skip or the back of a dust-cart. His paintings at this time started veering into abstract geometric designs, where again, paint is used only as a means to get colour on the canvas. Uninteresting, badly executed, and lacking in any philosophical or artistic depth. Loved by those who value graphics above expression, but without expression there is no art. I was not impressed.

Going Up Garrowby Hill, 2000
Going Up Garrowby Hill, 2000
You finally get some works that are a little better when he paints portraits of the wealthy in California. Presumably he was being paid a tidy sum and so put a little more effort into these. He clearly has an ability at portraiture, creating great likenesses and the "appearance" of character. But as I have said, the paint itself is badly applied with little or no thought. Edges are left badly defined where he clearly couldn't be bothered to do otherwise, drips of paint left where the rest of the canvas is made pristine, none of this aiding the work in artistic terms just simply leaving the impression of a man who paid no attention to his craft or expression, but only the image.

These failings are a constant throughout his career, as can been seen in his later landscapes where from 50-60 feet away the overly large canvases look great (what artist doesn't love the easy effect of size?), the imagery shining through. But as soon as you get close enough to see the quality of the paint work, his lack of care for what the paint is actually doing and for what it is capable of, appals me.

The irrefutable conclusion I am left with is that David Hockney is a graphic artist, not a painter, and it is no surprise therefore that his digital work works best.

The Ugly

But there is a very big and expensive elephant in the room, which is not directly connected to the work on display: the price of entry!

I have ranted about this to friends, I have ranted about it on my video review, and I will rant about it again here. To gain entry to this show costs and adult £19.50. This is an extraordinary price, a massive price, which puts shows such as this way out of reach of most people who simply haven't got that amount of cash to spend to see an exhibition. There is a concession rate - which doesn't deserve the name, of £17.50! So if you are unemployed or a student, are you really going to see this show? And it's not just this show, or this gallery. All the big galleries do this - massive prices that ensure that art becomes more and more an entertainment for the wealthy middle-classes, pricing everyone else out of the market.

I could only go to this show because I went with a friend who had a members pass that let us both in. Without it, as a non-world-famous artist, this is not a show I could afford to go to. It really disgusts me that art, something which at its best is direct communication from human being to human being regardless of age, rank, worth or any other way you may wish to divide people, is being made more and more elitist. And not elitist in artistic terms - that would be OK: only wanting the best art is fine. No this is money elitist: only those with substantial spare income can go, lets keep the poor, the unsuccessful, the lowly and downtrodden out. Ever wondered why you see all the posters for big new exhibitions on the underground in London, on the busses and bus stops, in the papers, but they never ever mention the price of a ticket? Well now you know.

The prices are disgusting, non-inclusive, and monetarily elitist. Shame on them.

So, should you go see this show? If you are a fan of David Hockney, sure, go fill yer'boots. Otherwise, you could probably do something better with your twenty quid.