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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics






Hockneyâs colorful elaboration on Picassoâs synthetic cubism, characterized 
by the juxtaposing and overlapping of shapes so highly abstracted 
that their relationship to any initially observed subject matters becomes 
metaphorical in nature, is essential to keep in mind when viewing Slow Rise
and attempting to discern its landscape configuration.  Perspective is largely 
done away with in favor of a composite of shapes, forms, textures, and points 
of view, all arranged by the artist to achieve a harmonious abstract design 
that is more expressive for him than a product of observation-based realism.

The Brauer Museum of Art is proud to have in its permanent collection a fascinating color lithograph/screenprint by the British artist David Hockney.  Entitled Slow Rise and created in 1994, this complex work was created in an edition of 68 prints.  Slow Rise remarkably manages to refer visually to many of the key phases and concerns of Hockneyâs multifaceted career. 
     Those familiar with the Brauer Museumâs collecting mission may wonder why a British artist is represented in the museumâs holdings of American art.  The answer to such a question relates directly to the subject matter of this particular image.  Throughout his career, Hockney has in his art reflected a fascination with California, specifically the geography, the warm light, the popular culture, and the lifestyles of the people in that state.  This fascination, and perhaps a deep affinity for the landscape, people, and lifestyles he saw there, eventually led him to establish a residence in California.  One can see Hockneyâs keen observational skills directed toward this environment in one of the more popular paintings in the Art Institute of Chicagoâs collection, an oil on canvas from 1968 entitled American Collectors.  This work depicts a man and woman standing in front of a very modern home.  The way both figures are dressed, their facial expressions, the spare and clean elegance of the houseâs design, the cool colors, and the bright and even quality of the light represented in the picture all work together to present a scene that viewers would immediately identify as taking place in the Los Angeles area.  (Interestingly, while this identification could arise from viewersâ personal experiences, it most likely comes from viewersâ experiences of Hollywood films.)  Hockneyâs works, in a variety of media, of swimming pools also capture the essence of California and do so with more abstract means.  While Slow Rise is not easily recognizable as depicting a California locale, it is part of Hockneyâs ongoing meditation on this stateâs geography, part of a large series of works in various media that use certain views or geographical features as jumping-off points for imaginative experiments in abstraction or stylization. 
     One artist who has been an important influence on Hockneyâs work and who seems to occupy a prominent place in Hockneyâs conscious mind is Picasso (a 1973 etching by Hockney entitled The Student: Homage to Picasso shows the artist holding a portfolio and standing humbly before an oversized portrait head of Picasso which is mounted on a classical marble column).  Picassoâs cubist experiments in portraying multiple views of a subject on a two-dimensional surface lie at the heart of many phases in Hockneyâs career; his Polaroid collages, his visually fractured painted portraits, and his series of California landscapes (to which Slow Rise belongs) all come from his ongoing interest in finding continued relevance in mining cubism for new pictorial potential and personal meaning, as well as exploring the nature of perception in general.  Hockneyâs colorful elaboration on Picassoâs synthetic cubism, characterized by the juxtaposing and overlapping of shapes so highly abstracted that their relationship to any initially observed subject matters becomes metaphorical in nature, is essential to keep in mind when viewing Slow Rise and attempting to discern its landscape configuration.  Perspective is largely done away with in favor of a composite of shapes, forms, textures, and points of view, all arranged by the artist to achieve a harmonious abstract design that is more expressive for him than a product of observation-based realism. 
     By understanding that the landscape of Slow Rise is constructed in a cubist manner, viewers can adjust their way of seeing the work to delight in various associations, some of which relate to more areas of Hockneyâs body of interests.  For instance, the highly compressed pictorial space in the piece is achieved by the artist placing foreground elements at the bottom of the image, and then stacking middle-ground and background layers so that they ascend in a way that recalls the atmospheric perspective seen in Chinese scroll paintings.  The shrub-like forms at the bottom of the image are anchored to the light orange ground by darker orange shadows, while the many post-like forms, possibly representing trees, cast long shadows to the side, an 
illusionistic detail which adds a literal and even ominous dimension to the highly stylized scene.  These post forms, dramatically struck by an unseen light source and starkly standing in colored, subtly-patterned fields, remind one of figures on a stage.  Throughout his career, Hockney has done many set designs for theatrical productions and, like so many modern set designers, has consciously stressed the artificiality of the stage with his bold and simplified flats and free-standing components (such a bold approach also has the advantage of viewers in distant rows being able to see and understand clearly the details painted on the various set pieces).  Thus, the abstracted puzzle pieces of Slow Rise combine with solemn, featureless standing forms to produce a landscape of the mind or imagination, where the pictorial forms in the scene manage to stand for landscape elements while simultaneously acknowledging their own artificial nature. 
     Slow Riseâs active composition is further animated by an exquisitely printed surface.  The bright white of the paper serves to brighten the colors, while the smoothness of the paper allows the printed shapes to stand out in crisp definition and fine detail.  Lithographically printed passages, usually subtle, thin, and full of interior modulation, have a high-contrast appearance in this work, while the silk-screened passages are richly gestural in contrast to the generally flat and even look that is usually associated with this medium.  The varied marks that make up the image, therefore, pose a satisfying and interesting challenge to the trained eye in identifying which areas are printed by which process.  Several areas within the piece, particularly the black and white areas in the left half of the print and the fading green field in the center, have visual textures which seem in origin to be mechanically produced, as if extracted from some larger continuous pattern or drawn and then manipulated with a computer or fax machine.  Hockney has actually been using both tools in the creation of his recent work, demonstrating with these experimental endeavors his restlessly creative spirit and his 
desire to explore new methods and materials for art-making.  These mechanically patterned portions further reinforce the notion of this landscape as an imaginative construct. 
     One of Hockneyâs most recent projects has been a thought-provoking re-examination of the working methods employed by those artists who have come to be called the Old Masters.  Most of his primary points on this topic can be found in his controversial 2001 book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.  In this book, Hockney argues that abundant evidence exists in Old Master paintings to prove that these artists used lenses and various basic devices to assist them in achieving the amazing portrait likenesses and incredibly elaborate compositions for which they are revered.  While Hockneyâs theories in this book are of no relevance to an analysis of Slow Rise, they do provide additional proof of his passionate interest in the complex processes involved in artistic representation. 
     In Slow Rise, Hockney has consciously disregarded virtually every aspect of traditional landscape depiction in making his own landscape image.  The resulting work disintegrates and reassembles itself before oneâs eyes, as expressive passages of mark-making, patterned shapes, and vibrant colors snap viewers into an awareness of another land, another world, where limits cease to exist.

© by Gregg Hertzlieb


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