Experiencing the David Hockney exhibit at London’s Royal Academy of Art was an immersion into Hockney’s bold, vibrant, hyper-sensory vision. As soon as I entered the room, I was attracted strongly, individually to different pieces of work. Every one was striking, captivating, energetic. And it wasn’t just me. I watched it countless times: viewers found, individually, pieces that they connected to.
In the first room on the right, the colors were muted and the scenes an elegant sort of desolate. Many of those pieces dealt with the desert landscape, and those were among the only images where Hockney blended text and imagery. I especially loved the way he mixed the two in Pearl Blossom Highway. The combination lent the work from this period a multimedia feel, and it, in a different way than his later work, walks that postmodern boundary of high/low art. It’s evidently crafted and intentional, but the craftsmanship seems almost childish, commercial, too simple. He also worked directly with photography in those images, as in the two expansive photomontages. In these three works particularly, the layering that is so important to his later work is physical and more superficially evident. That layering and high/low boundary is visible in the iPad works too, but there it’s even more flattened.
But it was Hockney’s treatment of the English countryside that really caught and held me. Not necessarily because it was the best work in the exhibit; I’m sure for many it wasn’t. But for me, the wall of his paintings of the Yorkshire countryside through the seasons was just perfect. The combination of those works were so reminiscent of the countryside of my home. They took me back to Remini Road in the summer, the two-lane highway that runs through South Carolina directly to Charleston. It was the first time I’ve been full-body homesick since I’ve been here. I could smell it, taste it, see it. I’m not sure whether the countryside around Yorkshire is physically anything like the rural South, but somehow, the feel as Hockney envisions it is similar.
Rimini Road in the summertime.
The fantastic, game-like colors and shapes of his large works, especially The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate and the logging paintings, had a completely different feel, but I couldn’t shake that earlier impression. While their intensity and scale were, if anything, more dramatic and more extravagant and more intense than anything else in the exhibit, it was those qualities which I felt mirrored in my longing for home. I wanted to be able to experience his work purely, not contextualized or buried in references to other art and other scenes. But I couldn’t. The too-emerald green became the green of the woods near Chapel Hill on the 4th of July, 2010. It became the thick, humid dank of the cyprus swamps. It became the everlasting youth of summertime, and in that imagined sunshine, I fell hard for my perception of what Hockney’s work embodied. It broke my heart, because it became clear to me that, sometimes, a love of art or artists is a selfish love, a narcissism. It’s not the work itself that’s affecting, or necessarily what the artist intended with his work- though that imbues it with potency and with the intimacy the viewer can relate to- but what the viewer can see in the work. And what the viewer can see is dictated by who the viewer is.
The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate.
It’s the subjectivity of art that’s the rub, the value given by the valuation. The viewers begin to own, claim, possess the work, and in that ownership, the viewer alters, reevaluates and contextualizes it. Hockney’s work, beautiful and elegant, became mythic in the eyes of the viewers because of what his work meant to them. For some, it’s purely exuberant happiness, for others, it may be nostalgia, clarity, anything. But for everyone, his art is more than just his.