David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture

Things to do, Event spaces
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Contrary to expectation, this exhibition of landscapes by art's nattiest northerner (interviewed here) does include one of his famed swimming pools. Tucked in the left-hand corner of David Hockney's 'Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio', a photographic reproduction of a vast 1980 painting (in the collection of LA County Museum), the watery rectangle offers a moment of calm on a bumpy ride across a stridently decorative California.

It's a pit stop, of sorts, in a room of 'Earlier Landscapes' that records what in turn seems like a flight – from dull, constricting Blighty to the delirious possibilities offered by the West Coast. Just nine years separate 'Bolton Junction, Eccleshill' (1956), an earnest spikily modernist street scene painted when Hockney was a teenager, and 'Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians' (1965), a crystalline abstract/figurative ode to the New World made, with all the wit and ingenuity we associate with classic Hockney, a year after he settled in Los Angeles. It feels like decades.

Hockney: the golden boy who got away. That this exhibition fails to continue in full retrospective mode initially disappoints. Yet, in focusing on works made in the Yorkshire Wolds during the past eight years, the show offers a different, more complex experience than might be offered by a straightforward survey; one that stirs up all sorts of questions about progression, about our relationship with the past, with art history, ideas of Britishness, legacy, youth and old age – and let's not forget that in Royal Academy terms, at 74, Hockney is a mere stripling.


One answer – that we never really escape our roots – resonates due to such a sustained focus on ostensibly similar subjects from Hockney's home turf. With pencil, brush, or, these days, iPad in hand, the artist approaches a clutch of motifs including Woldgate Woods and a 'tunnel' of trees near Kilham in the East Riding, with the sustained energy of an obsessive. So many paths through the forest, with their promise of a Heideggerian clearing. What is he hoping to find?

These are, in one sense, introspective pictures. The tree stump, a substitute figure, is a lonely presence in a series of 'Winter Totems'. And yet there's no real melancholy in evidence. Hockney's use of colour, as stridently, jubilantly bright as you could wish for in grey winter, sees to that. As does his humour, which, along with his mid-Atlantic accent, crops up in the Samuel Palmer-meets-Wayne Thiebaud, part-topiary, part-patisserie world of his hawthorns, heavy with blossom. Grown swollen and comic, nature clowns around for the artist who nudges it just the right side of madcap.

You don't get to paint serial, seasonal views of anywhere without coming up against some stiff art historical competition. At his best – in the eight-panel, four-season views of Thixendale trees that open the show – Hockney is no one but himself and a match for anyone. His invention is less explicit than it was 50 years ago; which is to say that the paintings lull you into thinking that they are less exceptional than they are.

Doing just enough to make an image coalesce, Hockney is the master painter-editor. It's a skill you wish he had extended to the exhibition as a whole. There's too much to take in here, a touch of the TV showroom about his bank of high-definition videos which, leading us up and down country lanes we've already travelled, seem superfluous. And too much iPadding.

When you start to lose a sense of the artist's touch, as you do in the grandiose installation of 32-panel painting and 51 scaled-up iPad prints that constitute 'The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty-eleven)', you feel, despite the merits of Hockney's drive to fuse the new with old, that technology still trails the hand. He says more with a stick of charcoal and a piece of paper – in the smaller picture.

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