30 Nov 2014

David Hockney: “Hockney” documentary DVD & Live from LA event. Review.

“What do you think of it?”

The voice came from the woman in the otherwise empty row behind. The one I’d been chatting to in the foyer whist waiting for the Savoy’s Screen 3 projection room to be relieved of a mass of hyperactive children more than a little excited by an afternoon of “Annie”. Mercifully, the cinema’s air con dispelled the stale odour of pop and popcorn with equal efficiency.

I pondered her question: What did I think of it? Asking me what I thought of Hockney’s remarkable artworks would have been easier to answer. But the Randall Wright documentary, and subsequent Live from LA interview we’d just watched? Not so sure.

“I thought it was okay. I expected a bit more. But I’m not sure of what”. She felt the same, and we both tried to formulate and express our opinions as the sparse audience around us listened in, attempting to do the same. It was a discussion with more space than statements. Later reviews in the press would be similarly challenged in their critiques.

David Hockney was and is something of both icon and idol to former art students of my generation. His media savvy predates and anticipates the later Britart activities of Emin and Hirst. It ensured his work reached the attention of the public eye, and not simply for a fashion sense which rapidly escalated from bowler hat and brolly to blond bespectacled beach boy. With few obvious exceptions, to have art books published about oneself in the early 1970s one usually had to have been dead since the end of the 19th century. So in 1971 Hockney’s own “72 Drawings” found little competition from his contemporaries, and soon found itself onto every self-respecting student’s bookshelf, whilst miniature first editions of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales he illustrated, protruded from Levi pockets as a symbol of cool.

This ready access to his work beyond the gallery walls of London helped establish him as a kind of saviour to those of us who felt the possibilities of a previous generation’s Abstract Expressionism had been exhausted, and the ready-made imagery of Pop Art of limited substance. Hockney’s work was at one and the same time contemporary and traditional. It put observational drawing back in centre stage. It still does. So, sat there looking up at the now blank cinema screen, why my lukewarm response to this documentary? Why my difficulty in answering that woman’s question? What did I think of it?

We live in an age when the works and lives of artists, musicians, writers, can grow in estimation in direct proportion to either the tragedy or excesses of the lives they live. An early death via car or plane crash is seen as a particularly good career move. Failing that a serious drug habit can prove a marketable alternative. Nothing quite like a cocaine confession to give a teenage pop star a little credibility. Never mind the quality, feel the notoriety.

Paul Simon once said, with a commendable honesty not usually associated with the entertainment industry, that after one achieves a certain level of success it is no longer appropriate or convincing to write angst ridden songs about “sitting in a railway station with a ticket for my destination”. His solution, responsible for the longevity of his success, has been to explore the technical aspects of the medium itself (in his case music) as the motivation. The African rhythms of “Graceland”, not typical of a Jewish rock star from New York, would be one such example.

David Hockney can be said to have pursued a similar course of action. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art, leaving his solitary student tea breaks behind, he has been a hugely successful, famous artist. He’s done this by exploring his chosen medium via a series of technical challenges: Depicting water in the pools and sprinklers of California; the photographic collages and composite Polaroids; stage set designs; and the changing seasons of the Yorkshire landscape depicted across multiple canvases, to name just a few, and not to mention his theories on the use of mirrors and projections in classical art. At the time of writing (and the documentary mentioned herein), his latest fixation is “reverse perspective”. It won’t be his last.

“Hockney” showed the majority of these projects in chronological order, with an impressive digital clarity not experienced on the printed page. Home movies and photographs punctuated the proceedings with appropriate biographical detail. But that’s it. And why should we expect more? Hockney’s life hasn’t involved any greater tragedy or notoriety than most people reading this post. Accordingly, it is simply his passion for and exploration of the painting / printing medium, and the  possibilities by which it can depict his mostly contented environment, which fuels his quite remarkable work. The paintings resist any political or social context. There is strong personal style, but not necessarily personal statement.

So that’s what I thought of it: A perfectly fine journey across the surface of an impressive range of beautiful canvases. The hero of the piece is not going to cut off his ear, choke on his own vomit in the back of an ambulance, or shoot himself in a drug fazed game of Russian roulette. In short, Ken Russell would never have made a film about David Hockney. The skilfully applied surface colours and textures are dazzling, but there is no revelation regarding deeper waters, if indeed deeper waters exist. That’s not what "Hockney" does. But what he will do, at age 77, is appear briefly “live” at the end of a documentary about his life, totally (and exclusively) excited about what he’s doing in this moment, “reverse perspective”, and attempt to convey to us what this latest artistic challenge he’s set himself is all about.

Copyright Ian G Craig. All opinions expressed are the authors own.