Friday, June 14, 2013

The Art Set: The Jugglers

David Hockney (b. 1937), still from The Jugglers, June 24th 2012, 2012. Eighteen-screen video installation, color, sound; 9 min. © David Hockney. Image courtesy Hockney Pictures and Pace Gallery.
The Art Set: The Jugglers
Charlie Scheips

Visitors to the Whitney Museum of American Art this summer can see one of prolific David Hockney’s latest bodies of new work — film! Hockney’s The Jugglers, June 24th, 2012 is, however, not your ordinary edited film mind you, but is instead a 9-minute video installation he created in his enormous Yorkshire studio last summer. To make it, he placed 18 individual fixed digital cameras mounted from the balcony that overlooks his sky lit studio there.

For The Jugglers, Hockney hired twelve members of the nearby York Juggling Club and had each performer dress in his or her own black clothing to provide a striking contrast to the bright blue floor and fire-engine red backdrop he had painted specially for the filming. Hockney's film in the museum's second floor Film & Video gallery is staged using 18 very large individual high-definition LCD screens — placed three high and six across — on a custom made armature that is invisible to viewers in the darkened space.

Long dissatisfied with the “tyranny” of the single lens that dominates photography and film, Hockney has, for decades now, explored the use of multiple perspectives and “moving focus” in a variety of media ranging from his early “joiner” photocollages, to the Polaroid and 35 MM photocollages of the 1980s.
David Hockney, Still Life Blue Guitar, 1982 composite polaroid, 24 1/2 x30 in. (c) David Hockney, 2013.
While I was his assistant in the 1980s, the artist also made with Philip Haas (see NYSD Art Set of a couple weeks ago) an amazing documentary film entitled A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China that explored the different methods of depiction between Chinese scroll painting and Western art. He is forever questioning how we see the world — and his work leads us all to see it anew. That is why he has made so many memorable images during his prolific 75 years.

Charlie Scheips and David Hockney, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 1986. Photograph by Michael Jacobs.
A photo I snapped of David Hockney in front photo of Picasso at the Louisiana Museum outside of Copenhagen in 2011.
A decade after Hockney’s photocollage period and the making of this truly fascinating film, he returned to the subject of image making yet again and spent several years of personal research that resulted in his truly groundbreaking book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.

In this richly illustrated book, he convincingly argues that the Old Masters of Western art used optical devices such as lenses and mirrors to create projections as visual aids in the creation of their work. When the book first appeared Hockney's premise was widely controversial among traditional art historians. A subsequent edition of the book, now translated into more than a dozen languages, is now a widely accepted premise.

He had used his formidable research (centered on the artworks of five centuries) to also call into question the notion that photography itself was an invention of the 19th century. Instead, Hockney argues that it was the discovery of various chemical means to fix photographs on materials such as paper, tin or glass that was actually invented during the 19th century, while the use of optics in image making goes back centuries farther. Once you spend time with this important, but accessible masterwork volume, you will never look at Old Master painting again in the same way.

Briefly, it is his view that it was the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, who (after the popularization of photography during the late 19th century) first began to reject the monocular perspective of the Renaissance. Paul Cezanne furthered the cause and subsequently helped to lead Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque to completely abandon so-called “scientific perspective” in their development of Cubism during the first decade of the 20th century.

After the success of Hockney’s Secret Knowledge, he once again, as is his habit, returned to painting. This time, it was the landscape of his youth in Yorkshire. It was during his return to England that he devised a process by which he could create multi-panel, large-scale landscape paintings using either individual canvases or sheets of drawing paper to create compositions in nature and finished them in his Yorkshire studio. No ladders were needed as he could work on easily manageable canvases individually — keeping the intimacy of his brushstroke at a human scale. The largest of these, Bigger Trees Near Warter (2007) comprised an astonishing 50 36 x 48 inch canvases which Hockney subsequently donated to the Tate Gallery several years ago.
David Hockney poses with Bigger Trees Near Warter, 2007. Photo: Gareth Buddo.
It was during this prolific period of landscape painting that Hockney got the idea to make films, similar to his multi panel painting approach, using remarkably small but high definition, cameras of the Yorkshire landscape he was immersed in painting. To accomplish this, he created custom camera riggings for 9 cameras that were then mounted onto a Jeep and then connected by wiring to 9 small monitors mounted on a board.

This enabled him, with the aid of his assistants, to “direct” the placement of the cameras sitting while seated in the vehicle’s back seat. I got to spend a day watching this fascinating creative process on June 2, 2010. At the time, if the upcoming major retrospective at the Royal Academy wasn’t enough of a workload, I was also organizing an exhibition of Hockney’s recent iPhone and iPad drawings for the Fondation Pierre Bergé/Yves Saint Laurent in Paris. But that is another story.
David Hockney directing the placement of the cameras from the back seat of his jeep in Yorkshire (Photos: Charlie Scheips).
The custom made armature Hockney had created to film the landscape of Yorkshire.
These early multi-camera films were all based on landscapes of the Yorkshire Wolds. Within time, Hockney had isolated locations and themes for his paintings and drawings as well as the films depicted during the different seasons of the year. By the time an edited version of these films were first presented in his huge Royal Academy exhibition, the artist had decided to pair two meticulously synchronized films of the same journey in contrasting seasons presented on 18 large digital screens as The Jugglers is now presented at the Whitney.

It was always standing room only for David Hockney's films at the Royal Academy's David Hockney: A Bigger Picture exhibition, January 2012.
But Hockney, a sophisticated student of the history of cinema, also had the idea that these multi-framed films could have other potent filmic possibilities. He asked his friend, the celebrated ballet dancer Wayne Sleep, to hire some tap dancers and a pianist as stars of a more narrative work that subsequently became the crowd-pleasing finale to the Royal Academy’s presentation of the landscape films.

By the time the Bigger Picture exhibition was presented in Cologne, Hockney had added The Jugglers to that venue’s film presentation. I first saw The Jugglers a couple of months ago at his house in Yorkshire. After watching it several times over the course of several days I had pretty much absorbed the film — at least I thought so.

One Sunday afternoon, Hockney and I watched on live television the running of the Grand National Horse race on the large screen in his “cinema” room at home. During the course of the couple-minute race, Hockney pointed out to me that the problem with a single camera (as seen in the coverage on television) is that it is not the horses that we view that are actually in motion, but instead the rapid pace of the background speeding by.

By contrast, in his The Jugglers, the floor and backdrop are constantly stable and it is the motion of the individual performers that we dart about watching — trying — but never really succeeding, to take it in as a whole.

Details from The Jugglers.
In Hockney’s view it is more like how we experience the world. While his landscape films are silent (he is severely hearing impaired), the more narrative films featuring people are set to music. In the case of The Jugglers the soundtrack is John Philip Sousa’s great march “The Stars and Stripes Forever” performed by Hockney assistant Jean Pierre Goncalves de Lima on the accordion.

It is thanks to the Whitney’s brilliant film and video curator Chrissie Iles that we have Hockney’s The Jugglers in New York. Pace Gallery, his representative gallery here, was also instrumental in this presentation.

When I went to the press preview of The Jugglers a few weeks ago, I ran into Pace’s Douglas Baxter and the Tate’s Stuart Comer — a few minutes later, a woman on the Museum’s staircase — the same woman who had earlier “shushed” me in the space for speaking too loud to Baxter and Comer — asked me if I was the film’s maker. No, I said, but I am a friend of the artist. She replied “Oh, its brilliant! I could watch it over and over again.” You will want to as well.

While, sadly, Hockney’s Bigger Picture exhibition did not travel to the United States, American audiences can look forward to a large survey of Hockney’s work coming this October to San Francisco’s de Young Museum. I haven’t been to San Francisco since 1991 so I am looking forward to seeing that city again.

David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition opens October 26th with more than 200 works spanning from 2002 until the present. It will occupy 18,000 square feet on two levels of the de Young — making it the largest exhibition in the Museum’s history.

Here is a sneak preview of just some of his work to be featured — including his 2005 self-portrait with none other than yours truly!
David Hockney, Self-Portrait with Charlie, 2005. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, London. (c) David Hockney, 2013
David Hockney, Self-Portrait with Red Braces, 2003. Watercolor on paper. Private collection. (c) David Hockney, 2013
David Hockney, Self-Portrait, 17 December, 2012. Charcoal on paper. (c) David Hockney, 2013
David Hockney, A Bigger Message, 2010. Oil on canvas (30 panels). (c) David Hockney, 2013

Hockney was inspired by Claude Lorrain's circa 1656 painting The Sermon on the Mount that is in the Frick Collection here in New York.
David Hockney, Woldgate after the Rain, 2013. Charcoal on paper. (c) David Hockney, 2013
David Hockney, Yosemite I, October 16th 2011. iPad drawing printed on paper (6 sheets), mounted on Dibond (6 sheets). (c) David Hockney, 2013
 
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