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Hockney in China

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

British artist David Hockney is proving as innovative and open to new technologies as ever. Former director of the New Zealand Portrait Gallery Avenal McKinnon visited an exhibition of his iPad paintings in Beijing. His rendering of the English countryside is as evocative using his fingers on a digital screen as paint brushes, oils and watercolours.

The Arrival of Spring

PACE Beijing, China


‘I got an iPad when they first came out in April 2010’ David Hockney writes in a personal statement at the start of his exhibition The Arrival of Spring which is currently showing at PACE Beijing. Armed with an iPad, Hockney charted the transition from winter to early summer in Woldgate, Yorkshire in 2011.

Hailed as one of Britain’s most celebrated artists, Hockney belongs to a long line of painters who have responded to the British landscape. One thinks of Constable, Turner, Cotman and Samuel Palmer – but these large format iPad prints convey the excitement of a new medium – the sense of exploration of working with an app brush and the speed it allows, since there is no waiting for pigments to dry. Painting with his fingertips, inventively smoothing the colours one over another, varying the marks with bold strokes, adding tiny calligraphic touches with a stylus, in this new vocabulary, which is freed from paper or canvas, Hockney has created a luminous investigation of the Yorkshire countryside.

Hockney first visited China in 1981, but has long had a fascination for Chinese scroll painting and the idea it provides of somehow being able to travel through a landscape, to experience it as though from within. To reinforce the sense of inhabiting the landscape, ‘as close to being there as you can get,’ Hockney has also created two monumental 18 screen video installations, offering multiple viewpoints and time sequences. Filmed simultaneously, using nine cameras attached to a moving car, the scenes track Woldgate Woods under snow and navigate through the green depths of the roadside in early summer, creating something analogous to a rollercoaster spatial thrill within a fractured, advancing landscape.

In a slower time sequence from December 2010 until June 2011, Hockney made almost daily drawings from various vantage points around Woldgate in a concentrated, almost obsessive effort to directly observe the changes from winter to spring.

Critics who complain that these works are ‘peculiarly retrograde,’ or too ‘pastoral’ and betray the painterly world for the electronic one where surface becomes inescapably flat, miss the whole point of Hockney’s lifelong interest in perspective and the issues of how to present a 3D world on a flat surface.

The wonder of these prints is that their surfaces are so magazine smooth; the colours rendered through inkjet printing – non pixilated, citrus sharp – the marks and lines a triumph of drawing. The viewer is sucked into the immediacy of the scenes, lured in by the curve of a road, the seemingly random tangle of leafless branches. Hockney’s intensely observed landscapes throb with extravagant colour – carmine, vermillion, saffron, orange, purple and turquoise – recreating the chill of winter, the raw wetness of dripping vegetation, the strange warmth of sunlight on snow. The presence of flowers comes as a surprise, the white blossoms of hawthorn, blackthorn, snowdrops, and pale gold daffodils seem to float within an impenetrable, dense canopy of green.

Far from simply charting nature’s changes from winter into early summer, this series is a set of personal encounters, a re-enactment of the experience of nature, a celebration of an artist’s relationship with the land.

First published ArtZone #60


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