Review: David Hockney takes a drive through art history
In 1684, the Qing dynasty artist Wang Hui took out his brushes, inks and colors and began to paint a panoramic landscape view.
Starting at the right side of a 20-inch-high hand scroll and working toward the left, an imaginative visual journey unfolds along wooded paths, over mountains, through mist-laden valleys and past waterfalls, stopping now and then to rest in a viewing pavilion or at a traveler’s retreat before moving on.
By the time Wang was done, his virtuoso painted scroll unfurled more than 39 feet in length.
Classical Chinese landscape paintings such as this thrum in the visual memory of David Hockney’s gorgeous video murals, seven of which are on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
In an intimate room at the rear of the Resnick Pavilion, a suite of 18 flat-screen televisions takes us on short excursions through the Yorkshire countryside of northern England. The installation creates a kind of public living room, nicely outfitted with a love seat, upholstered side chairs and padded benches for comfortable viewing.
The view through this living room’s virtual picture window captivates. Three screens high and six wide, extending a full 24 feet in width and almost 7 feet high, Hockney’s “video scroll” offers up a moving image of the landscape too large to take in all at once.
The season is spring. Ripe nature is bursting in verdant greens amid luxuriant atmospheres filled with moisture. Your eye scans from one screen to the next, each sharply focused and in brilliant color, moving up and down and over and around as the scene glides by.
Hockney made the videos using nine cameras affixed in a grid pattern to an armature, which he attached to the side of a car. Like a tracking shot for a Hollywood movie or television show, although without a production company’s industrial-strength equipment and crew, the cameras roll down Kilham Road and through Woldgate Woods. They pick up roadside patches of Queen Anne’s lace in the foreground, middle-distance footpaths running between trees, undulating farmlands at the far horizon and more.
The nine simultaneous views were edited so that each wide vista slides forward slightly, a doubling that results in 18 separate images, one per screen. As the traveling landscape view advances through space, it also magically seems to be folding in on itself.
Every now and then a gust of wind blows through. Leaves turn upside down in anticipation of a rain that never comes. Suddenly, a car passes the artist’s slowly moving vehicle, roaring in and out of view like some mythological dragon on the prowl. Eventually the 18 screens wipe clean and, a few moments later, another journey unfolds — and then another. Together, the seven visual odysseys last for just more than 12 minutes.
Wang Hui is remembered today for his work’s extraordinary synthesis of visual elements, all carefully selected from earlier Chinese paintings produced over hundreds of years. Likewise, Hockney’s Yorkshire landscape videos, made in May 2011 and being shown for the first time in the United States in the British artist’s adopted hometown of L.A., knit together vast historical swaths of global art into a current digital form.
In addition to Chinese hand scrolls, there’s Albrecht Dürer’s “The Great Piece of Turf” (1503), probably the greatest European drawing ever made. Nestled within Hockney’s acutely recorded roadside weeds are intimations of the tangle of dandelions and mud that Dürer brought together in a watercolor and gouache microcosm of the natural world’s magnificent splendor.
Monumental landscape painting took a great leap in the 1820s when John Constable assembled edited views of the rural English countryside in a region not much different from the one where Hockney worked. The slightly larger-than-life scale of Constable’s so-called “six-footer” paintings, taller than a standing person and wider than a viewer’s outstretched arms, meant that a concentrated gaze could not encompass the entire picture. Like the videos, the paintings endow the humble world with an inference of historic consequence.
The faceted planes of Paul Cézanne’s late-19th century landscapes are echoed in Hockney’s multiple screens, amplified by their subtle shifts in spatial composition. An eye always moves when it looks, and the visual perspective is never static. Cézanne’s artistic revolution in the exploration of perception, which did so much to launch the modern era that has brought us to the digitally dizzying present, is acknowledged and embraced.
In perhaps the wriest example of all, Hockney’s video drive-by along country roads is a rural counterpart to “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” Edward Ruscha’s seminal 1966 photographic record of L.A.'s distinctive urban environment.
Ruscha mounted an automated still-camera on the back of a pickup truck, aimed it to the side and drove up and down the Strip shooting black-and-white pictures described by the finished work’s title. The automotive picture — nearly 25-feet wide and contained in an accordion-fold book — remade conventional street photography, which until then had been the exclusive province of artists working as pedestrians.
Drive, he said. Hockney did.
And Hockney’s multi-screen video journey of course builds on the artist’s own work. How could it not?
That includes the monumental, vividly colored, multi-panel landscape paintings he has made in recent years. (A sizable selection of those is currently on view at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, where “David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition” surveys his 21st century work, through Jan. 20.)
He’s been at it since at least 1980, when the 20-foot painting “Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio,” installed in LACMA’s permanent collection galleries, charted the twists and turns of a familiar daily car trip from his house in the hills to his Santa Monica Boulevard studio. And the multi-screen video format has evolved from the photo-montages he began to make more than 30 years ago.
Dürer, Wang Hui, Constable, Cézanne, Ruscha, earlier Hockney and no doubt more — watching a mature artist use present technologies to engage in deep conversation with the art of the past is profoundly pleasurable.
“Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos” can be enjoyed in its own right, as a luxuriously sensuous visual ride unlike any our automobile-dependent city has to offer. Or it can be indulged as a deceptively simple work of art that actually contains multitudes — a conceptually faceted history of photographs within paintings within imagination within memory.
David Hockney: ‘Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos’
Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Through Jan. 20. Closed Wed.
Contact: (323) 857-6000, https://www.lacma.org
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