Saturday, 10 March 2012

Line and length, lad

Now that walking weather has returned, I ambled up to town for a couple of exhibitions recently. The first was the Eve Arnold photo show, All About Eve. This was held in the Artsensus gallery, which is housed on the second floor of an office block behind Westminster Cathedral that also houses Tom Ford. The stairwell was populated by beautiful, willowy young women having anguished conversations on their phones while clutching unlit cigarettes.

The photos were so-so, the iconic shots of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable on location for The Misfits being the main draw, though I was most taken by some of her photojournalism away from the stars, such as US Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell at a Nation of Islam meeting, or the itinerant Irish labourer in Manchester for whom a bed looked as distant a prospect as an Oscar.

The second show was the Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy. This involved some middle class queueing, with various parties furtively casing the joint to see if they could sidle in without causing "a fuss". The crowd inside was rammed, in no small part due to hordes of visiting schoolkids. One of the middle-aged day-trippers was heard to opine that "they shouldn't let school children in during the day", which for stupidity was on a par with those complaining that Yorkshire roads aren't orange, nor ploughed fields purple.

The colour in Hockney is a massive distraction from his structural intent. Each work is a careful composition of lines and curves, washed in hedonic hues. Despite his clear signposting (the show is called A Bigger Picture), most critics seem to have missed the bleedin' obvious, namely his use of grid lines and fractures to simultaneously fragment and contain the picture.

This use of structural lines is apparent from his earliest work and becomes in-yer-face with his Californian compositions in the 60s, heavy on the rectilinear architecture and palm trees. Garden design has never been the same since. The use of Polaroid collages in the 80s takes it to another level, with the fracturing now being a function of the medium, rather than just a form imposed by the artist. Technique and technology are used to deliberately fragment and displace. It's apparent in his subsequent interest in camera lucida and fax, and the now dominant use of multiple panels.

His use of a grid of slightly askew cameras on a jeep-mounted rig, which allows him to film a hedgerow in a fractured single take, was treated as a mesmeric object of near-religious contemplation at the RA (a darkened room always helps). In contrast, most people seemed bemused by his use of the iPad, or even dismissive of it as shallow technophilia. The Polaroid SLR camera had been around a decade before he started using it in his art, so perhaps his latest obsession is seen as just a bit too keen, a bit too Stephen Fry-ish. The attraction of the iPad for Hockney, I think, is it's rectangular shape. A single device that can generate and store multiple "panels" in portrait or landscape orientation. Perfect for his purpose.

The real subject of the exhibition is our dear old friend, Death. This is not just because it is a retrospective, spanning early art school work up to his latest musings. The changing seasons, the retreating path, the tunnel of greenery with a light at the end. All these are classic tropes of mortality. The tree stump that features repeatedly has a feminine, almost Venus de Milo, shape to it, which inevitably triggers thoughts of his mother whose death brought him back to Bridlington.

The felled logs can also be interpreted as mortal, though I think (half mischievously) that they may also represent all the fags he's smoked, or perhaps all the cock he's had (do comedy Welsh accent at this point). And the hawthorn and other blossom, which some have likened to patisserie, look more like turds. Do not be misled by the colour.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the show, though the least popular with the crowd and critics, is his series of variations on a Claude Lorrain landscape depicting the sermon on the mount. Claude's oeuvre, reflecting the fashion of his time, was highly allegorical. The mount, which looms large, contains what appears to be a small rock-cut tomb on one side. Hockney has faithfully replicated this small detail in each piece, while keeping it obscure. I think it is at this point that a bigger picture becomes the bigger picture.

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