25 Trees and Other Pictures by David Hockney
at Salts Mill, Sailtaire
Take a 15-minute journey by train out of Leeds and you reach Saltaire, a quintessential Yorkshire industrial town that sprung up around the Salts Mill textile factory in the 19th century. Back in the day its great halls would have been crammed with machinery spewing thread and cloth, but today (and only for a month longer) the rooms house examples of a very different type of craft: amongst other things, David Hockney’s iPad drawings.
Although ‘A Bigger Splash’ (1967) is still his most enduring piece, Hockney‘s work since has been too varied to keep referring to him arbitrarily as an artist of the pop art era. But by picking up an iPad and using it to make ‘art’, Hockney gives a new meaning to what pop art might mean today in a world of still-emerging digital media: It’s no longer a collage of coloured magazine cut-outs (Richard Hamilton) or screen-printed supermarket packaging made reverent by hanging them in city galleries worldwide (Andy Warhol), but a ‘painting’ made by dragging a finger across a touch-screen before being emailed to multiple recipients. In these iPad doodles the ‘pop’, if you like, appears by the way they can be mass-reproduced and their colourful vibrancy.
That exaggeration of colour, the paring down of detail and the patterning of form (see particularly the tree paintings that appear in the exhibition, both iPad-created and painted) are all distinctly Hockney’s, but even a quick look shows how the iPad has left its mark on Hockney’s work. Indistinct, blended brushstrokes have been replaced by a fluorescent technicolour net of lines. Even the ‘smudging’ is mechanical, turning trees into child-like skeleton drawings, but at the same time they retain the organic nature of a painting as the composition sketches show through.
The more that is written about them (and reams of art press have been devoted to them already), the more you realise that, so bizarre are these loose and rough, yet strangely smooth and artificial ‘paintings’, we haven’t developed a vocabulary to talk about them yet. They’re pretty in their ingenuity of idea, but often ugly in their crudeness (who didn’t spend school IT lessons doodling on Microsoft Paint?), and our reaction to the ‘paintings’ changes dramatically from one to the other.
It’s definitely his most media-friendly work in a while, and it’s tempting to dismiss it as all media splash and no swim. (Hockney’s iPad work is likely to make up a significant part of this January’s Royal Academy retrospective spanning 50 years of his career). But although they might lack the aesthetic beauty of some of his other work (see the work dotted around the gallery shop downstairs), Hockney, at 74, is starting down a path of digital art which will undoubtedly soon be well-trodden, a particular ‘touch-screen’ strand where the finger directly determines the electronic markings that appear on screen. It’s painting – but not quite.
iPad art aside, the fascination of this particular show is its sheer eclecticism, and the Salts Mill setting suits this perfectly. Once you’ve found the gallery in the building’s bare-brick warren (follow the stairs up three or four floors), a large open-plan hall (with the main landscapes and portraits) ducks out into small corridors and pokey rooms. Turn left and you might stumble across a series of Hockney-illustrated theatre posters, look right and you’ll see a reproduced Matisse collage – an illuminating comparison.
Finish off downstairs in the shop where more Hockney work is scattered about like a sketch book, and we meet Hockney the graphic artist, Hockney the set-designer, the furniture-maker, the photographer…
It’s a fantastic setting for an intriguing exhibition. See it before the Royal Academy dismantle it.
See David Hockney at the Salts Mill gallery in Saltaire (a 15-minute train journey out of Leeds) until the end of December. www.saltsmill.org.uk
A Bigger Picture will open at the Royal Academy in London on 21 January