Something new from the insatiably curious mind and restless hands of David Hockney is always an occasion.
“Something New in Painting (and Photography) [and even Printing] … Continued,” as his show at L.A. Louver is titled, raises expectations to a level bordering on audacious.
What Hockney reaches for here is an entirely new way of representing three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. It’s a bone he’s gnawed on since his earliest years as a painter, and he’s become only more preoccupied with it since venturing into photography and studying the optics of lens-aided composition and perspective.
In the 1980s, Hockney made a series of large, jaunty photo collages, unified scenes built out of hundreds of incrementally shifting views shot over time. The new “photographic drawings” are revisitations of sorts, higher-minded and higher-tech, but a lot less fresh.
To create the two massive pieces in the main gallery, Hockney photographed friends and colleagues individually, then digitally stitched the images together to create a fictional scene. In “Pictures at an Exhibition,” rows of folding chairs, some filled, some not, face away from us, toward a wall hung with Hockney's paintings. The other scene appears largely identical, except the figures face a mirror that reflects them back. The situation flaunts the capacity of the special camera used to record each subject in the round.
Painters and photographers have long made such composite portraits. (On Tuesday, the Getty opened a show devoted to a pioneer of the contrived montage in photography, Oscar Rejlander [1813-1875]). The immersive scale of Hockney's work and the advanced imaging techniques in play are definitely how-wow factors, but what's left after the novelty is registered is an awkward and dessicated hyper-realism.
However ingeniously the works are conceived, the subjects stand or sit in the pseudo-space like crisp-edged, self-contained paper dolls. There are plenty of bonbons: the recognizable characters within, including Hockney himself; the faux graffiti — “3D without the glasses” — scribbled on one wall; the coy spatial setup that has us observing others observing themselves observing. Hockney has engineered a fancy performance, but the show is thin and the amusement shockingly brief.
I can thankfully report there are recent paintings nearby. In these too, Hockney concerns himself with the confounding practice of representing the roundness of life on a flat surface, but instead of trying to master the mystery, he surrenders to it, luxuriantly. Each painting is composed of nine canvases in a three-by-three grid, evoking at once the discontinuities of collage and a single view through multiple window panes.
Hockney here is at his exuberant best, rendering his everyday walk to the studio a fantastical journey, and transforming floral still lifes into buoyant revelries in tangerine, grape, royal blue, lavender, mint green and sunflower yellow. Stairs go every which way, like an Escher fun house, and sometimes just stay flat stripes.
In this smart and delectable theater of shape and color and illusion, what Hockney offers eye and mind is inexhaustible. I may never have enjoyed Hockney's paintings more. I know I've never appreciated his photographs less.
L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. Open Tuesdays-Saturdays, through March 23. (310) 822-4955, lalouver.com
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