David Hockney could do worse than to wind up being seen as the Noel Coward of Post-Modern art. Like the great British entertainer and playwright, Hockney is a ne plus ultra stylist who makes everything look so easy, his work could be mistaken for thin. Well, set thin on edge and it gets deep.
The latest evidence is an exhibition called "Faces." Some 70 portrait drawings pacing about the walls of Loyola Marymount's Laband Art Gallery until March 18 sample Hockney's output from 1966-84. The show, organized by gallery director Ellen Ekedal, is a must for anyone who loves great drawing, be it Holbein or Matisse. The little catalogue follows the artist's recent interest in using a copying machine as a print-making tool. Reproductions are details of works in the show copied to give them new expressive wavelengths.
It's a complete hoot to watch the artist get it right no matter how he goes about it. Well, most of the time. There is that occasional touch of petty malice and a whiff of cunning British book illustration.
A brace of self-portraits are slurred and casual with lines that look like pieces of unraveled yarn and contain tones like smudgy kids' handprints on the fridge, but the image that emerges is perfectly plausible.
Such a level of virtuosity is enough to sustain anybody right around the gallery, but it could leave you wondering how Hockney feels about his sitters. They are friends and relatives clearly drawn in intimate, informal circumstances but on the face of it, there is no interpretation of their character or feelings.
To come to such a conclusion is to believe that Coward wasn't saying anything in the famous exchange between an estranged couple. When she asks "And how was China?" he replies "Very big, China." "And Japan?" she asks.
The humor and poignancy of the scene is carried by the situation and nuances of acting style and thus it is with Hockney. His interpretation is implicit in the style he adapts for the drawing. Unlike a lesser artist or a stylistic mimic, Hockney does not impersonate; he gives you the feeling he is being perfectly himself, drawing in an unforced way while thinking about this or that aspect of the history of art because it illuminates the sitter. The thoughts somehow get into the picture.
The drawling drawing of the self-portraits, for example, evokes his own distinctive regional accent--Yorkshire, I think--and also the tipsy energy of Zen eccentric brushwork. The emerging picture of the artist is witty and endearingly self-effacing.
Hockney evidently numbers some famous folks among his acquaintances, and it is certainly significant that he often chooses to draw them with the wiry contour line that Picasso employed to draw Serge Diaghilev and other luminaries during his ballet-design days.
The ploy is not only a neat visual simile; it allows these rather dramatic egos to appear to speak for themselves. Hockney's Cecil Beaton is the very model of the modern fop. Henry Geldzahler broadcasts the same wavelengths as Charles Laughton--a kind of imperial infantilism.
It looks as if Hockney takes a sitter most seriously when he affords them the full-dress treatment of a colored drawing in a style that combines the linear delicacy of Ingres with the volumetric solidity of Holbein. A portrait of Hockney's father reeks with affection, respect and a strange aura of regret. This plain, decent man in his buttoned-up cardigan and bow tie looks like one of those chaps who feels deeply but says so little, he is taken for cold.
Hockney draws many more men than women, but it's not because he can't. His full-dress (and undressed) images of his friend Celia keep a respectful--even uneasy--distance but show her as a great classic northern beauty touched with bits of decadent poetry that both enthrall and amuses her.
It's all in the wrist. To capture changing moods and different facets of character and reaction, Hockney changes style. One ink drawing of a chap identified as "Gregory" makes him look like a hung-over party animal; another is as lush and sensual as a Renoir nude. The same sheet is a perfect example of a trademark Hockney master drawing with its wonderful moves from careful surface description to a blue-striped jacket that is at once accurate, abstract and decorative.
Actually, draftsmanship as good as Hockney's is not all that rare. What is, is a combination of taste and intelligence that avoids all the pitfalls of stylization and comes up with work that is inimitably stylish, funny, detached and shyly tender.