David Hockney at the Royal Academy, London

by Sascha Feldman, March 2012

With each landscape in A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy, Hockney has captured and conjured the unique character of a physical space, each possessing a distinct quality of light, temperature and atmosphere. The saturated hues and tones of Hockney’s years in California flood into his native Yorkshire fields, and recognizable vistas appear over and over again, revamped by the artist as well as by time, the elements and memory.

Early landscapes of California record the mythic Wild West in surreal, hallucinatory colors. The Grand Canyon is shown in burnt oranges, shades of green and a pallid purple, a combination as toxic as it is seductive. Vibrant canyon roads dotted with hillside homes suggest an expansive and fast-paced Los Angeles—a city often explored from behind the wheel of a car. Photo-collages of curving highways and national parks present a fractured multiplication of space. Slight overlapping, duplications and disruptions among the photographs create a sense of jittery movement, as if the viewer is teetering over the Grand Canyon’s cliffs. These constructed panoramas offer a sublime view of the landscape, one that, despite its abnormalities, is sharper and in greater depth than the human eye could achieve.

A rediscovery of Hockney’s native Yorkshire has resulted in an imaginative, if not obsessive, recording of the landscape’s seasonal changes through paint, watercolor sketches and, most recently, the iPad. Many of the largest paintings stretch across dozens of canvases, which adds strict geometry to Hockney’s expressionistic foliage and  vivid colors. Enormous yellow felled trees seem to slide right into the gallery space, and broadly cast shadows shed red and purple light onto country roads. Watercolors trace the same fields through a calendar year, highlighting Hockney’s interest in memory, decay and the eventual rebirth of spring. The iPad works break the landscape down to its most essential forms, implying the natural world without explicitly illustrating it. This radical manipulation and simplification of space somehow carries a nervous energy, or a sense of urgency, as if the strokes of color were in danger of being erased.

Hockney seeks to capture fleeting seasonal happenings. Painting the same vista dozens of times points to the limits of the medium, and the impossibility of his practice—to record natural phenomena that move too slowly for film, and cannot be caught by a photograph. In an effort to capture and present subtle and ephemeral effects of light, weather and time on the landscape, Hockney has moved away from painting toward film. This new body of work consisting of nineteen films is so unaffected and heartbreakingly beautiful that one might wonder whether Hockney has been thinking and seeing the world cinematically all along, in stages of constant movement and change.

Film cameras were strapped to the front of a Jeep, which was driven around the English countryside during various seasons at different times of day. The individual videos are then screened side by side in a grid, creating an immersive panorama of a space too expansive to be captured by just one camera. As with the photo-collages, it is the slight disturbances and inconsistencies that draw the viewer in—snow begins in one screen and disappears in another, cars and birds whip past the Jeep’s path, their forms fractured by breaks in the screens. Each screen is so large that when all eighteen videos work to move through a single landscape together, the effect is quite overwhelming. Like pressing one’s face to the glass of an aquarium, the natural world turns sharply focused and, yet, somehow out of reach.

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture21 January—9 April 2012
Royal Academy of Arts