Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Hockney back at LACMA

August 28, 2006


This summer has been a good one at LA museums with two great touring exhibits in town at the same time: Robert Rauschenberg Combines at MOCA and David Hockney Portraits at LACMA. The latter show ran earlier this year at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and leaves LACMA this week for the National Portrait Gallery in London. Of course Hockney has a long history with LA and LACMA and, as in the past, this relationship is on display front and center in many of the works highlighted in this exhibit. Hockney's images have become iconic of Los Angeles in the last few decades and these portraits provide us not only with a glimpse inside Hockney's personal circle of friends and family but also an image of ourselves (Angelenos) and the place and time we live in. In a city where separation from one another is a fact of every day life, an LA-oriented exhibit that emphasizes the importance of our interpersonal relationships in this context can seem like an epiphany.

I waited until virtually the last week to see this show and I now regret it. It is well worth a second visit and I would encourage everyone who hasn't to see it here while they have the chance. The show cuts quite a broad swath and features work from the 1950s through last year. It is also broad in that it covers many different techniques and formats Hockney has worked in throughout his career: from painting and sketches to photography. One of the things I found most interesting about the exhibit was a sort of "parallel process". Because of his preference for portrait subjects he personally knows well, Hockney often paints the same subjects over and over again at different times in their lives, using different techniques and at different points in his development as an artist. Not only is it fascinating to see Hockney’s development over time, but also how this development as an artist is paralleled by observing the aging of a group of friends, family, and acquaintances. This mutual aging and development give rise to a sense of what is lost and gained with time both for the subjects and the artist.

To my eye, many of these works were equal parts joyous and melancholic, creating real emotion in what are often rather posed and static images with little motion. While I didn't always feel a sense of who any of the subjects were, I always perceived the artist’s reaction to them. I left the exhibit feeling I had seen more into the person Hockney is than any of his sitters - an irony for an artist who has done relatively few self-portraits. The works were filled with deep emotions from love in the images of the artist’s mother to the passion towards lovers like Peter Schlesinger. The exhibit invites us to think about how the ever-changing constellation of our personal relationships contributes to our sense of who we are. The processes by which people come and go from our lives is reflected in our development as we age. In some ways, the true radical spirit of this exhibit may be in the implication that we are shaped more by those passing through our lives in brief periods than we are by those "close friends" we have throughout. This notion may be best reflected in the mini-photo montages that make up 112 LA visitors. The piece is a record of individuals visiting Hockney in his studio over a period of time in the 80s. While many of these were close friends and family who would sit for portraits in other contexts, others are not. The piece emphasizes the random and contradictory nature or our selves and of the way in which our interpersonal relationships reflect this by condensing all of the subjects into nearly identitical and parallel spaces - every subject receiving the same valence as the others regardless of their importance or relationship to the photographer.

In the end, maybe this is another metaphor for LA - a city desperate to soak up every metaphor it can get it's hand on: LA is a city of visitors. Some visitors we know well and others we may not. But regardless of the attachment, all of these exeriences add up to make the people we think we are.

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