Bradford-born and LA-based artist David Hockney once said that art comes in three forms – landscapes, portraits and still lifes. Having conquered landscapes at his mammoth RA show A Bigger Picture back in 2012, this time Hockney fully immerses himself in portraiture and dabbles in still life in his new exhibition at the RA.
82 Portraits and 1 Still-life is an intimate exhibition of recent portraits Hockney has painted over two and half years. Portraiture has played a major part in Hockney’s work – his first portrait depicted his father and was unveiled in 1957. Since then he’s explored the form through oils, photography and acrylics. This series of works offers an insight into his life in LA, with each sitter in the series having been invited by Hockney to be painted in his studio. His subjects range from family, friends, acquaintances and staff revealing the characters who play a prominent role in his life.
The series was started in the wake of a tragedy – in 2013 the artist suffered a minor stroke and soon after his studio assistant Dominic Elliott suddenly died. For several months Hockney didn’t paint a thing, then unexpectedly he produced a portrait of his right-hand man Jean-Pierre Goncalves De Lima AKA J-P. Depicting J-P with his head down and his hands over his face, this portrait depicts a state of mind – Hockney’s own at the time. Rather then leave it as a stand alone piece that represented a period of time, Hockney treated it as the beginning of a new body of work.
Among the portraits of industry big shots including John Baldessari, Frank Gehry and Celia Birtwell, Hockney’s car washer Ivan Schreiber, his housekeeper and fridge repair guy also feature as the artist’s own roster of “celebrities”. Hockney removes all hierarchy by placing all the portraits side by side in chronological order of when they were painted. Lining the deep red walls of the RA’s Sackler Gallery, the hours, the concentration and the dedication that’s gone into this project is palapable.
Hockney sees this as one body of work rather than lots of paintings and his process echoes this sentiment. Each portrait was completed in three days, which Hockney describes as “a 20-hour exposure”, all sitters have sat in the same spot in his LA studio, in the same yellow chair, and each portrait has been painted on the same size canvas.
The lone still life, painting number 34 called Fruit on a Bench is a quirky insight into his process as a painter. For each image Hockney psychologically prepares himself for a day of painting, and on this particular occasion his sitter unexpectedly cancelled on him. Still in that mind-set Hockney created this ad-hoc scene to paint instead. Unlike the yellow chair which acts like an innocuous part of the set, the bright, blue bench enhances the tropical colours of the peppers, tomatoes and banana.
In each painting Hockney’s signature Californian colour palette is at its most vibrant. It’s a return to acrylic after 20 years for the artist and it allows him to capture each sitters’ personality in his friendly, painterly style. In 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life Hockney is not just painting his friends and family, rather it’s an exercise in control and limits, seeing how far he can push himself as an artist at 77.
David Hockney RA: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life opens 2 July until 2 October 2016.