David Hockney – a master colourist

I first came across David Hockney’s work through the lithographs of Celia Birtwell, wy back in the 70s when I was an art student studying printmaking. I loved these images, the simplicity of the line work with its subtle wash – stylised but capturing a moment.

On exploring Hockney’s work further I saw an exhibition of his LA Swimming Pool series and again I was struck, not just by the naturalness of the image/subject matter but at the complexity of the structure and composition that made these images so alluring; they were so quintessentially modern.

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) 1972

Many decades later I was fortunate to see a wonderful exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia which showcased the work of Dale Chihuly as well as featuring Hockney’s A Bigger Grand Canyon. For me it was one of those ‘wow’ moments. Coming out of the wonderfully curated Chihuly show – which was akin to walking through Aladdin’s Cave – to see this incredibly strange painting consisting of many small canvas boards in the strangest colours was one of the highlights of my art viewing.

What made it so special was a short film that accompanied the work: David Hockney talking about his process in constructing this amazing piece. Not just the footage of him driving his convertible along mountain rides listening to Bach, but also his using photographs of multiple viewpoints and then the process of colour selection. I finally sat down right in front of that painting and it took my breath away. I was able to experience it from so many different point of views (perspectives) that it wasn’t a static image, it was an alive and deeply moving colourful experience. Sadly, the NGA has now hung this masterpiece on a wall over the escalators so that it’s impossible for anyone to really see/view/experience it, or indeed understand what all the fuss is about. I don’t understand why this decision was made as I think it remains of the true great works in the collection.

David Hockney, A Bigger Grand Canyon” 1998

One of Hockney’s ‘tricks’ is to eschew traditional perspective – a fifteenth century construct which is fixed  – and opt for a more subjective view. He sees his objects from multiple perspectives, from many views and many sides and angles and manages to capture the visual experience of being in the presence of the depicted image. Masterful.

So it was with great anticipation that I wanted to see the NGV’s exhibition of Hockney’s new works: Current. And yet, when I expressed my interest and asked if people wanted to go see it with me, the response was lukewarm: ‘nah’, not really interested.
I had talked to a friend who had seen it and she related how impressive the digital/iPhone images were and Hockney’s discussion of his art making on video. I definitely wanted to see this. I had also seen a very short interview with Hockney on SBS about this show and the glimpse of the images impressed me with their bright colour and sheer joyfulness. I was going to see this show.

And so I did. I managed to convince a friend to see it with me – he and I went to uni together to study Art History and although he was sceptical about the show, he was gracious enough to come. I’m extremely pleased to say that he was blown away and thought it one of the best shows he’d seen. Hockney is not just a master of colour he is a master of invention.

Hockney’s use of the iPhone (and then the iPad) to create ‘pictures’ is mesmerising. His use of colour is breathtaking and his skill, well, I think he is one of the greats. And at age 90 he is making inroads and creating works that not only astound but delight. If ‘joy’ was something I had expected to experience, I found it to be so much more than I could ever have contemplated. There were so many ‘wow’ moments in viewing those works; so many mouth-gaping ‘how is that possible?’ that I came away convinced that I had seen one of the greatest shows of the 21st century (second only to an exhibition of Anselm Kieffer that I saw at the Royal Academy of Arts in London).

Money matters


Discombobulated by the sudden discovery of having left my wallet at home.

I drove to Queensland Uni the other day to meet with a potential supervisor (for my PhD). I dropped my husband off at the airport as he was going away to a conference interstate and continued on my way, paying attention to the Google Maps lady to ensure that I was in the correct lane for the right exit out of the tunnel etc. It’s been a while since I lived in Brisbane and I find driving around the place very confusing. Once upon a time I used to drive everywhere without the aid of an electronic device – there were road maps which you would consult and then try to memorise. Seemed so straight forward that I’m not sure why I have a sense of panic about driving without the aid of Ms Google.

Finding a parking spot at the Uni was quite an exercise but I finally managed to and it was right opposite the pay station. Handy. And then I realised I didn’t have my wallet with me. I hadn’t bothered to put it into the bag I’d taken. There was no money in the car – not even coins – and I didn’t have a credit card. I had planned to get a cup of coffee and perhaps a bite to eat before my meeting. Now I couldn’t even get a bottle of water. Or pay for the parking. But even worse – and this is where my panic hit crisis – I couldn’t get fuel for the return journey.

I don’t know anyone in Brisbane so there wasn’t anyone I could ring to come rescue me (bring money). And I didn’t have one of those banking accounts that let’s you use ATMs without a card. I also had no identification which made it hard to try and get fuel without paying for it (I would of course have paid later, if that transpired to be at all possible). Finally I decided that all I could do was find someone to give me some money. Worse case scenario I would ask my new supervisor (embarrassing). I could transfer money into her account immediately. As for the parking ticket, I left a note saying that I didn’t have my wallet and I had gone to find some money. Nothing more I could do on that front.

Eventually I found an angel of mercy who helped me out. I think she just took pity on me when I told her my plight and although she wasn’t able to do anything in her capacity as an employee of the university, she offered to do so personally, an act of human kindness. So I transferred money into her account and we went to the ATM and she withdrew some money for me – enough so that I could get a bottle of water and put enough fuel in my car to get me home.

My meeting went well and I got good news about my PhD propsoal and supervision and was thrilled with the outcome. But I was so thrown by the experience that I’m still unable to process my thoughts and feelings about the outcome. It required quite a bit of wine that evening, but even after a long, deep sleep and a morning yoga session, I’m still feeing a sense of discombobulation. Hopefully in a week or so I will be able to laugh at my stupidity. But I will remain forever grateful for the kindness of strangers. And I will also put some money in the car for any such future emergencies.

Baby it’s cold outside

… and wet.
The Queensland version of cold has hit. It’s 18 degrees and I have the heating on. I’m still in my yoga clothes (crop leggings, top, zip-up jacket and I’m wearing my TOMs). So it’s not that it’s cold enough to be rugged up and I haven’t yet pulled out all my winter woolies or even my long-sleeved T’s, but there’s a definite chill in the air.

Usually I wouldn’t really notice. The car is in the garage and leads directly into the house and there’s an automatic door opening the garage so there’s really no need to experience the elements – just go from one car park to another. Except that I no longer have a car to drive. I’m getting around on my pushbike. My pushbike is one of those electric ones that has a motor to assist in getting up those hills that seem to be everywhere, so riding my bike isn’t really an effort. Until it’s wet and windy. That’s an altogether different kind of experience.

Yesterday the wind blew my bike helmet back off my head, almost garrotting me (I definitely need to get a new helmet that fits better) and the the rain, though light, kept hitting my face and making my glasses wet and impossible to see out of. Today I was prepared and wore my goretex coat over my hoodie to protect me from the rain and wind. But what I didn’t factor in was that despite leaving my bike under an awning it was wet when I came back to it and I ended up with a wet bum.

The other problem is that if it’s raining, my yoga mat, which I have on the back of the bike, gets wet.

And then there’s the problem of shopping. The basket on the front of my bike isn’t designed to hold much weight so I can’t put any shopping there – just my little bag with wallet and keys etc. So I have to try and secure my shopping on the rail on the back of the bike. Which means that I have to be very mindful of what I can buy. One day I got carried away and when I went to secure my shopping found it wasn’t going work – there was just too much.

I like getting around on a bike when it’s a nice day and I don’t really have much to do. It’s certainly a great way to get to the beach and Hastings St here in Noosa where it’s impossible to find a park when the tourists hit town, but as for using it as my main form of transport in this cold wet weather? It sucks.

Modernism in Queensland

In a post-post-modernist world, how many people are familiar with the amazing accomplishments of the modernists?  They were the pioneers of colour, form, daring simple styles and subject matter previously deemed unworthy of artistic endeavour.

I was a bit sceptical about going to see Modernism at Queensland Art Gallery, an exhibition showcasing the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, Grace Cossington-Smith and Margaret Preston.  Putting those three women’s work together seemed a bit like an afterthought – we’ve managed to secure paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe but not enough for a stand-alone show, or curating a show out of whatever’s not recently been seen from the stockroom.  Certainly it seemed odd to show O’Keeffe with the other two Australians – Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington-Smith.

But each artist has transformed traditional still-life into a more vibrant and modern aesthetic.  Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings fill the canvas with close-ups of magnificent blooms, their bright colours and abstract quality conveying a distinct sensuality. Margaret Preston’s graphic paintings focus on design and pattern and remind me of the early Russian modernists with their focus on constructivism and utilitarian design as well as the still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi. One of my favourites is a very minimalist painting of a tray of cups Implement Blue (1927), highly stylised and beautiful in its minimalist, industrial design. I love the play of light and use of geometric pattern and colour.  I’m not a fan of Preston’s later work where she appropriates colour and design from a quasi-Aboriginal aesthetic – all these strike me as being works of design rather than landscape painting.

In a way, Grace Cossington-Smith is the odd one out; her paintings seem more post-impressionist rather than modernist – apart from The sock knitter (1915) – and her subject matter less interesting. The sock knitter is a portrait of her sister knitting socks for soldiers fighting in France.  The interesting thing about this painting is it’s emphasis on compositional structure: the play of horizontals and verticals through the misalignment of the cushions on the back of the sofa which sit at odds with the intimate and commonplace subject matter.  It’s one of Cossington-Smith’s best (if not the best) paintings). A tension between subject matter and surface, which reminds me of Matisse.

Christopher Allen in his review of the exhibition (when it showed originally at Heide) wrote: The exhibition includes a number of abstract or semi-abstract works from O’Keeffe’s earlier period, including the years when she shared a home with Stieglitz at Lake George. These are finely painted with a sensuous pleasure in surface texture and a love of seductive, even sexual forms, even if the notoriously vulval flowers are barely present here. And it is this erotic vitality that separates her so starkly from the rather spinsterly sensibility of the two Australians.”  And it is indeed this aspect that made me sceptical of seeing this show.

I first came across Georgia O’Keeffe when I was a young art student in the 70’s. Back then she was very much a feminist icon – her bright paintings of canna lillies and other exotic flowers were often described as images of vulvas, though O’Keeffe always denied this.  In some way O’Keeffe’s work became conflated with that of Judy Chicago’s (one of the “first-generation feminist artists,” who was part of the Feminist art movement in Europe and the United States in the early 1970s to develop feminist writing and art and at the time and who were heroes to many young women seeking to advance their own artistic practices). 

Chicago’s famous installation The Dinner Party was a collaborative piece that made no hierarchical distinction between art and craft, indeed it was the very inclusion on some of these crafts (hand women settings, pottery, embroidery etc) that made the installation so significant. I was lucky enough to see it in the 80’s at the Melbourne Exhibition Building, which was still functioning back then.  The Dinner Party is considered as one of the first epic feminist artworks, serving as a symbolic history of women in Western civilisation. It consisted of three large tables put together to form a triangle, covered in white tablecloths on which were 39 elaborate place settings, each representing a significant mythical or historical woman of whom O’Keeffe was one.  Each of the plates was beautifully hand painted depicting a flower or butterfly image evoking a vulva.

The works on display at QAG are actually well curated and worth the visit.  Depending on your individual taste you’ll find one artist’s work more interesting than others.  For all my misgivings about a show on modernism that consisted of these three seemingly disparate female artists, I think it’s interesting to re-visit this long-forgotten aspect of early twentieth century art making and remind ourselves of the trajectory.  Certainly some of O’Keefffe’s beautiful pastel works seem like a precursor to colour-field painting, especially the paintings of Helen Frakenthaller and I loved some of her dark almost abstract landscapes. I also found resonance with Tim Maguire’s beautiful close-up paintings of flowers, especially tulips. Whatever the connections, whatever the inspirations, it’s always good to see some art and be reminded of how it’s an ever changing landscape (pardon the pun).