Monday, July 31, 2017

David Hockney @ Centre Pompidou

David Hockney, Pearblossom Hwy., 11-18th April 1986

I have never been a big fan of David Hockney’s art. I first encountered his work in London in the 1980s, when as a young Australian on my five year world odyssey ,I saw everything and anything. In among my discovery of great masters and awe-inspiring museums, I was excited by Hockney's photo-montages. I enjoyed them because of what they did and said about photography; but even then, I wondered what he was doing that Picasso and the Analytical Cubists hadn’t already done. While I recognized this kind of fragmentation of the image as breaking apart the world that made all things less certain and less predictable, I wasn’t convinced there was much behind Hockney’s photo-montages. At the time, no one else was doing this kind of thing with photography, but in my eyes, Hockney's efforts weren't ever substantial enough to make the work radical.
David Hockney, We Two Boys Together (clinging), 1961
Then over the years, I have seen the odd Hockney exhibition, but his work has never interested me again to the degree that the photo-montage works did. And I would hazard a guess that this is because he’s not a great painter, and he’s not a great intellectual. His work is interesting for its exploration of space, multiple perspectives, its challenges to the two-dimensionality of the image, and with this, its eventual unsettling of the viewer as the central concern of the late works. However, to me, all of these concerns are being explored at the level of the conceptual —rather than through a manipulation of the medium of paint. And I can’t help feeling as though once you have seen one, you've got the point, and don't need to keep looking.

Image result for david hockney the four seasons
David Hockney, Summer. The Four Seasons,  2010
That said, I did appreciate the early works on display at the Pompidou Centre’s retrospective, particularly, the drawings and those that reference the Dubuffet style. I was interested by the marriage of Hockney's search for sexuality, and simultaneously, in the same images, the search for representational principles. In the early works, we see him looking for meaning, gradually starting to interrogate the parameters of the image as he will do over the course of his career. We also see the recurrent frame of blank canvas around the painted image, the frequent swathes without paint in the centre of the canvas, and the search for eroticism and desire at the end of the paint brush or stylus.
David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972
I enjoyed the late works for their baroque aesthetic—lurid blues, greens, oranges and purples; perspectives in which the influence of virtual reality is clearly inspiring Hockney, and consequently, pushing the possibilities of two dimensional representation. Of course, I have to admit that these works are all about paint because it couldn’t be done in any other two dimensional medium, but it is not about the gentle pushing and pulling of paint around a canvas. I enjoyed Hockney's venture into film–which I previously didn’t know he had done—in The Four Seasons, for the feeling of queeziness as I stood before the installation. I felt as though I was indeed travelling the path together with the camera that is being carved out in the snow, in between the trees and covered in leaves in autumn and spring, and dappled in sunlight in summer.
David Hockney, Garden with Blue Terrace, 2015
However, I also felt alienated by the paintings. In the same way that the figures in the double portraits do not look at each other, in fact, they have very little to no interaction at all, or in the same way that it is always a single swimmer in a pool creating ripples on the water, I felt completely alone before Hockney’s paintings. There is nothing about them that would make me want to be inside their worlds, and nothing to pull me into any kind of relationship with them. Rather, I was standing looking at desire as it is painted on and in the behavior of water, the landscape. I felt placed as an observer to Hockney’s own desire as a painter, as a gay man. For this reason, I didn’t come away from the exhibition feeling as though my world had expanded, or as though I had been transported to places I had not previously been. 
David Hockney, My Parents, 1972
It is an interesting exhibition, and the display of the late works in particular is lovely and maintains their integrity. But so much of what Hockney is doing feels like pastiche, superficial and insubstantial. It is an exhibition that is drawing crowds, primarily because  the works are representational; there is a lot to look at and people who appreciate color, design and commercial art will be interested in the brightness and composition. In addition, when I went the exhibition was filled with young gay couples—in numbers I have never seen them at a Francis Bacon or a Lucien Freud exhibition—all of whom no doubt connect to Hockney’s lifetime search to articulate his own identity as an artist and a gay man. If this is what it takes to get the public into an exhibition, that would make the Hockney exhibition an occasion to applaud.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Dioramas @ Palais de Tokyo

Jean Paul Favand,  Eruption of Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples at Night, 2012
In usual Palais de Tokyo style, this exhibition of the Diorama and its evolution into contemporary art is ambitious, original, and utterly engaging. For people who have never seen a diorama—most people alive today—the first couple of rooms are a revelation. I was thrilled to be walking through with some young people who had never seen anything like the objects on display. They were mesmerized. Seeing their eyes filled with wonder as they watched day turning into night through the manipulation of light behind the Polyorama Panoptique slides of London, Paris and other cities filled me with joy. That these 19th century forms of visual culture are still a source of wonder today inspire faith in the capacity of history to engage and extend the imaginations of the next generation. In an era when young people seem are eternally glued to their cell phones, it’s a encouraging to see their eyes light up in these early rooms. Many of these 19th century forms of visual culture are as exciting now as they were back in the 19th century.

I am not convinced that all of the pieces on display are actually dioramas, so the title is a bit misleading. It’s more accurately a collection of early forms of visual culture that show the seeds of contemporary visual entertainments such as cinema, photography, video and virtual reality. All of the material and conceptual concerns of the cinema and cinematically inspired entertainment are already identifiable as far back as the 18th century. Light as a medium to create movement, the passing of time, the transportation of the viewer to faraway (exotic) places, the continuity between painting and three-dimensional forms such as architecture, visual display and spectatorship, the interrogation of the line between illusion and reality, the challenge to perspective that comes with still and moving photographic images, the possibility of seeing the world differently, and on and on, are the concerns of visual forms such as the diorama, polyorama, panorama, and of course, their relatives in the museum of natural history. There is nothing that film studies talks about today that was not explored in this period.
Mark Dion, Paris Streetscape, 2017
Thus, one way of looking at Dioramas is to see the exhibition as being not about what the diorama spawned and influenced, but where contemporary visual culture comes from. Religious scenes, landscapes that replicate nature in motion, the display of taxidermy animals made for Natural History museums, in windows stuffed full with figures, objects and activities, wax figures so clearly not mimicking life but reaching towards an audience prepared to believe in the possibility that illusions can be brought to life, are all the ancestors of the image world that we live in. The spectacles of entertainment, and their manipulation of the line between reality and fiction as they journey all the way to fake news begin in the magic seen in these vitrines and theatrical scenes.
Richard Barnes, Man with Buffalo, Ottawa, 2007
Wandering around the first part of the exhibition visitors will be struck by the bourgeoise colonialism and annexation of the nation state that are represented again and again in these forms. Black people in three dimensional spectacles of servitude and oppression, to say nothing of all the animals that were killed for taxidermy and inclusion in scenes to be ogled at, continued to entertain well into the twentieth century. The cruelty to animals and exploitation of certain communities was not the concern of those who made these visual narratives. It’s impossible for today’s viewer not to notice this, and as I moved on, I began to wonder whether the curators were also oblivious to the ethically, politically, and environmentally problematic, even egregious, nature of the displays. And then, directly after the 19th century British fantasy of imperial power, Richard Barnes and Diane Fox’s works confront us with what goes on behind the scenes in the creation of these spectacles. From this point on, the exhibition takes a turn. In Barnes vitrine, Man with Buffalo, Ottawa  (2007) a janitor hoovers the buffalo’s window display. and in another, a giraffe is wrapped and hoisted on the end of a cable in what looks like a theater space.  Breaking the illusion of the scenes in the window also prompts us to recognize the cruelty inflicted on the animals. In Fox’s prints, a lion leaps in reaction to hunters with spears—she is skewered and obviously killed by painted hunters. The lion cannot tell the difference between illusion and reality, and we can only because Fox draws attention to it in order to underline the horror of the scene. In all of her photographs in the exhibition, the tragedy lies in the confusion of the taxidermy animal, its mistaking of the painted for reality being what leads it to its death.
Diane Fox,  Milwaukee Public Museum , Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2006

The contemporary works that follow are all sophisticated plays on the confusion of reality and illusion and a simultaneous engagement with the diorama as museum display, wax works and taxidermy window. There are works that question the human diorama as a colonial propaganda tool and the making of black men into a spectacle. Sammy Baloji for example has crafted an installation in which hunters in the Congo in the colonial days collect people and animals to be put into a museum. Or in Paris Streetscape, 2017 Mark Dion collects the trash and places it behind glass for us all to look at. His vitrine is complete with pigeons, parrots and crows feasting on the refuse made by humans. This is not quite the picture we have of Paris’s streets. Thus he undoes the idealized vision of both the diorama as a visual entertainment of enchantment and wonder, and the streetscape of Paris, the modern city that comes to life at the very same time as these forms. In addition, works such as Dion's, like many of the other contemporary installations, take on a whole new attitude towards and create a whole new meaning of ecological sustainability.