If this is the first David Hockney exhibition you’ve ever seen, you may be surprised at the number of people milling around the gallery. What brought them all here? It’s not immediately clear.
The straight answer is that Hockney is one of Britain’s most distinguished living artists. He has a talent for creating a restrained, bubbling-under-the-surface tension – as seen in iconic paintings such as ‘A Bigger Splash’ (1967) on display at Tate Britain – and for capturing telling portrait details – most famously in ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ (1970-71), also at Tate Britain. Then there are his bright, Van Gogh-esque paeans to the English countryside, and playful self-portraits. But what we have here is something wholly different.
‘Painters have always known there is something wrong with perspective,’ the artist says in the catalogue notes. ‘The problem is the foreground... and the vanishing point.’ His claim is a big one, and not borne out. But the gist is that we are no longer shackled to the rules of painting – or photography – because digital technology can ‘free us from a chemically imposed perspective that has lasted for 180 years.’ In other words, computers are liberating because they let more of us mess with how stuff looks. To this end we get Hockney’s ‘photographic drawings’: combinations of photos and digital painterly elements. There is a lot of stimulating, ‘What the heck is going on?!’ fun to be had, and the palette is bright and almost pathologically cheerful (in a good way).
This marks another foray into digital manipulation for Hockney, whose iPad landscapes were shown at the Royal Academy in 2012. But the collages in this show all land the same back-to-frontness punchline, while some of the straightforward portraits on canvas, such as ‘Augustus and Perry Barringer’, of two gormless-looking young men (one in rowing kit, the other in shorts and bow tie) are humorous and full of humanity. If anything, it is these works that hint at Hockney’s enduring talent.