Since his hugely successful show, ‘A Bigger Picture’ at the Royal Academy last year, Hockney has been very much in the public eye. For decades he has brought fresh ideas to the art scene: from his photomontages in the 1980s to his recent use of an iPad. However, his current exhibition at the Tate Modern in London sees Hockney’s conventional use of brush on canvas as a starting point for an exploration of paint and performance.
It opens with a pairing of Hockney’s iconic ‘A Bigger Splash’, a triumph of Californian sunshine, alongside Jackson Pollock’s signature action painting, ‘Summertime Number 9A’. In Room 1, the Pollock is displayed on the ground, as it would have been found in his studio. Above the long, rectangular canvas itself is Hans Namuth’s film, showing how the artist achieved the dynamic explosion of paint. He walks swiftly around the canvas, placed on the ground in an open field, using gestural flicks of a large paintbrush or else just dripping and pouring. The canvas becomes, as Harold Rosenberg put it, “an arena in which to act”. The layers of line and colour which build up become a narrative of Pollock’s prancing movements. Paint is a record of the performance.
Namuth’s films and photographs of Pollock at work were pivotal in the artist’s rise to fame, and powerfully conveyed that art is as much about process as it is the finished product. However Pollock became increasingly frustrated with enacting what used to be a spontaneous process in front of cameras. His art became a performance in the inauthentic, non-realistic sense of the word.
In contrast to Pollock’s swift practice, Hockney painstakingly constructed his big splash over a period of two weeks, using white acrylic in thread-like squiggles over thin washes. A splash of water is an instantaneous episode, which in reality could never be seen in the way we do in the painting. Hockney amusingly decided to record the moment in “a very very slow way”, rather than as a spontaneous gesture.
Process remains an important theme throughout the exhibition. Television screens show Yves Klein’s questionable public events where women were covered in paint to become ‘live brushes’ and Shozo Shimamoto using violent gestures like hurling pigment filled bottles or canons of paint at a canvas. The resulting artwork is highly reliant on chance, again underlining the role of process. Action painting overhauled traditional limitations of paint and canvas.
As we move on through the exhibition, the pieces range from the amusing (Geta Bratescu’s ‘Towards White’; a photographic series showing the artist blending into the background by covering herself in white paint) to the bemusing (a film entitled Flower Orgy by Yayoi Kusama, which looks like a naked game of human twister).
Some of the most interesting works are the politically charged pieces. Korean artist Kang-so Lee’s uses paint and action to comment on his government’s limitations of free action. There are also some thought-provoking pieces exploring feminism and homosexuality through make-up and drag. I particularly liked Helena Almeida’s ‘Inhabited Painting’ which blurs the line between canvas and paint as a photograph of the artist with a brush becomes the canvas for swishes of blue acrylic.
This blurring is seen again in the second part of the exhibition where each room becomes dedicated to a singular artist or group of artists. The most recent pieces are by Lucy McKenzie whose trompe l’oeil techniques create a space that the viewer might inhabit. My favourite artist in part two of the exhibition is Edward Krasiński who applied a line of blue scotch tape across the front of 12 mirrors hung at identical heights though positioned at different depths into the room. His installation, ‘Untitled’, draws the viewer into an exploration of the relationship between artist, object, spectator and gallery space. After all, like a pantomime, the best performances always entail audience participation.
‘Painting After Performance’ is showing at the Tate Modern until 1 April 2013.
Image: ‘A Bigger Splash’ by David Hockney, flickrID:oddsocks