Friday, February 9, 2007

Home Again, Naturally

It was the wall color that did it. As soon as I walked into the gallery yesterday to see the new David Hockney paintings at LA Louver Gallery, I made the connection. How could I miss it? Eating Room Red. Where had I seen that color before? Of course! The day before, at the Huntington Library, for the Constable show. There, in the words of the Huntington's press release, "the wall paint... was made possible through a gift by Farrow & Ball from their collection of colors, which is based on historic English interiors. The colors were selected to bring to mind the backgrounds Constable painted the wall of his lodgings in 1813 for displaying his paintings. The gallery walls are painted Eating Room Red, based on an 1818 color evoking the strong, intense shades favored during the early nineteenth century..." Of course, then! Big landscape paintings, plein air... two British artists, two centuries apart, the English countryside...

And I discovered from Hockney himself that the coincidence was in fact no coincidence. The idea of showing his big new landscape paintings of East Yorkshire concurrently with the Constable show originated with Stephanie Barron, the chief curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who suggested it to Hockney.

It was a wonderful moment of synchronicity for me, however--compounded by the fact that I had been on the telephone that same morning, yesterday, February 8, talking to my sister in the Cotswolds, to send her birthday wishes. Hardly surprising, then, that my meditation this morning was flooded with memories of England and images of the English countryside I knew so well as a child: the bluebell woods at the bottom of the hill near our village of Aspley Guise in Bedfordshire, and the other, sandy woods toward Woburn Sands, across from my grandmother's house, where we went to gather chestnuts on cloudy autumn days; I can still recall the particular smell of ferns, damp moss, the bark of trees... Or the Sussex Downs-the setting for my school years--white with chalk beneath the grass, where my cross-country team would train with five mile outings over hill and dale and, the last half-mile, though thirteen dikes where we would have to break the ice in winter to splash through the muddy water...

Powerful memories, irresistible once triggered, as they were by the Constable and the Hockey shows. No matter how much I tried, in meditation, to being my attention back to the breath, they reasserted themselves with insistent stubbornness. I gave up, finally, and just allowed my mind to wander through those landscapes and recall the depth of feeling with which they are still associated. Mostly, for me, this was the sense of isolation, at once passionately sought after, as a refuge and--in the form of intense loneliness--feared.

What I got from Hockney's landscapes was predominantly joy, the sheer exuberance of return to a setting so intimately familiar that you know you're home. That this is where the heart belongs, has always belonged, since your earliest days. That kind of joy, that sense of "fitting" in one's true place in the universe. These are huge paintings, considerably larger than Constable's. Those in LA Louver's main gallery are rectangular assemblages of numerous separate canvases, each separately framed but all hung together to form a single picture--a device that reminds us forcefully that we are looking at art; and indeed that we are looking at painting, not the photography to which our eye has become attuned in its expectations. We are not allowed to see these gloriously colored images as "picturesque." We are required to experience the landscape through the medium of paint and through the artist's feeling-eye.

Having myself written a full-length monograph on David Hockney, I know about his decades-long fascination with photography and its influence on painters and the way we see. He was talking, last night, about Constable--and the fact that Constable must surely have known about camera obscura and the potential for "photographic" reproduction of reality. But as Hockney notes in a quotation cited in his exhibition's press release, "The camera sees geometrically--we must see psychologically." His critique of the photograph is that it flattens out both perspective and color, and tends to close the viewer out rather than welcome us in, as does a painting.

Clearly, then--and unlike so many artists working today--Hockney rejects the use of the photograph even as an aide-memoire. Even for these huge works, he packs a bunch of canvases in the trunk and sets them up on huge easels (for an image scroll down through this link) to work en plein air, as did Constable--though the latter lacked convenient transportation, of course, and brought his sketches back to the studio where he worked. That's why these Hockney paintings are so incredibly, almost shockingly lively. It's not only their scale, it's their immediacy we respond to--the direct connection we intuit between the landscape out there and the artist's eye-heart-hand. As Constable said (I think I have the quotation right: it's printed on one of those Eating Room Red walls) "Painting is another word for feeling."

Impossible, anyway, not to be swept up by the power of those big paintings, even in the crowded space of a big--in this case, a very big--gallery opening. Even with all the conversation, even with the attention diverted by the exchange of politenesses and catch-up--Hockney's paintings refused to be ignored. There they were, evidence of the simply masterful authority of a man who has spent his life examining the information his eye receives and the responses in his heart with critical curiosity, and who has acquired an ease of line and a sometimes outrageous passion for color that few can equal. I used the word "luminous" yesterday in talking about Constable, where it glows amongst the shadows and through the foliage. These paintings of Hockney's are all luminosity. Even those that are more subdued in tonality--and there are a few--seem to glow.

I did mention, earlier, my own ambivalent relationship with isolation. Beyond the exuberance. I sense that ambivalence in Hockney, too. His people and his panoramas have been largely separate. There are portraits, there are landscapes, there are interiors. They rarely meet, especially in the recent work with which I am familiar, in the same picture. There's an interesting push-pull between the often wild, irrepressible surfaces and the quiet within. Eventually, for me, it's the quiet that wins out. Take a breath... Another... Silence, that's the ticket.

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