Saturday, August 13, 2011

The British Word continued : David Hockney

The gospel singing (good people) Madison Square garden (1961-3)

Meeting the good people (Washington) (1961-63)

The drinking scene (1961-3)

Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (1961)

We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961)

Doll Boy (1961)

David Hockney’s work from the early sixties combines accessible, informal and sketchy graffiti marks with highly personal, layered and confessional content. The paintings visually mimic lavatorial graffiti– a space cluttered in energetic, messy imagery and words that require close reading. This graffiti aesthetic in turn enhances Hockney’s use of confessional language. In a semiotic lens, the words (or the “signifiers”) are given a greater meaning (“the signified”) once related to their context (the graffiti).

The language in these works often has the bluntness and crudeness characteristic of contemporary British art. As in the past, the words address social oppression, specifically as experienced by homosexuals. In Hockney’s piece Doll Boy, the words ‘doll boy’ appear to horizontally run into a male figure’s frail, tilted neck that precariously balances on his body, and may likely be decapitated by these derogatory words. Here, word and image importantly work to reinforce one another.

What makes these paintings different from actual graffiti, however, is that they have a uniform quality, an underlying narrative in their repeating themes of love, sexuality and oppression. One senses a singular personality in these works, which seemingly contradicts the fact that they mimic a public and anonymous form (graffiti). Thus, in a way, Hockney resembles the Romantics and other artists to be discussed in that he uses language in a self-expressive and introspective manner while, on some level, presenting the language as self-detached. Interestingly, Hockney often borrows segments from Wordsworth’s poems or poem titles, such as We Two Boys Together Clinging. The phrase crawls in between two embracing figures, giving verbal expression to their bond. Here, Hockney shows that British artistic desire to give vision to a poet’s words.

Though Hockney’s work has a critical and a torturous self-reflective quality, it nonetheless maintains the ironic, satirical humor characteristic of British art. Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style uses the image of a ‘Typhoo Tea’ carton to ironically box up a figure seated on a toilet seat. Hockney, as past artists, in drawing from popular culture, makes his critique more accessible for and engages in dialogue with the public. He likewise maintains the roughness and sketchiness seen in his other works, furthering the distortion of a traditionally bright Pop art image. As Clothier puts it, there is here “a blend of high melodrama and absurdist humor” (20).

Hockney’s version of A Rake’s Progress uses Hogarth’s Rake series as a model, blending word and image in a similar satirical fashion to make social criticisms. However, while Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress is clearly not a “progress,” the same cannot be assumed of Hockney’s. As Heffernan puts it, “Hockney’s picture playfully asks if homosexuality… means the end of England” (Cultivating Picturacy, 239). Hockney’s own answer to this question is an ironic ‘no.’ The rake is placed within situations that could be considered immoral or irresponsible, such as indulging in drinking, partying, frequenting gay venues and overspending. The series is thus about “the individual’s defining and redefining this self in time” (Joachim, 39). As Hogarth, Hockney incorporates the signage of the times in his depictions of public hangouts such as pubs and familiar references to music (gospel), public monuments (the capital) and campaign imagery.

At the end of the series, “unlike Hogarth’s rake, who is nearly prostrate in the final plate, Hockney’s rake ends up standing at attention” (Heffernan, 252). Thus Hockney ironically uses Hogarth’s plates to serve a contrary purpose – to show that so-called “immoral” attitudes are not so detrimental after all.

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