Munro: An exhilarating David Hockney exhibition in San Francisco

The Fresno BeeNovember 23, 2013 

SAN FRANCISCO — For a moment, I am surrounded by time.

Four gallery walls form a square with me in the middle at the de Young Museum, where the must-see "David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition" is breaking artistic ground. On each wall hangs a grid of nine 55-inch digital video screens, three across and three down (with no space or margins between the screens), laid out in what you'd think of as a traditional tic-tac-toe configuration. Each of these nine-screen units forms a single artwork depicting a swath of English countryside.

The one in front of me is titled "Woldgate Woods, November 7th 2010." With a blue sky poking through, snow sparkles in a canopy of trees above the path of an old Roman road in East Yorkshire. Hockney mounted a custom multi-camera apparatus on an SUV and with an assistant drove slowly through the woods, shooting with nine cameras. Each video covers the field of view you'd expect, but they're all a bit off-kilter when it comes to how they line up with each other.

The result is stunning. The nine video screens are synchronized in terms of timing, but the skewed visual nonalignment makes it feel like Cubism, as if we're deconstructing a moving image and seeing it from slightly different perspectives. I stand entranced for a full five minutes in front of the vivid winter scene unfolding before me. In some strange and wonderful way, time seems to stand still. I've never seen anything quite like it.

You can say the same for other aspects of this exhibition, which focuses on the work of the 76-year-old Hockney — the celebrated English artist who first made such a splash in the 1960s with his vivid swimming-pool images of California — in the past decade. These past 10 years obviously have been a fertile period for this artist with a voracious creative appetite.

The Hockney show — which left me exhilarated and inspired — is just one reason why it's a great time for art lovers from the Valley to make the drive to San Francisco. (There are several prominent Yosemite National Park-themed paintings selected, which adds to the regional appeal.) One of Fresno's most beloved artists, Robert Ogata, has a solo exhibition featured at the SFMOMA Artists Gallery through Dec. 20. And after years of hearing about it from artist friends, I finally got the chance to browse through the impressive collection of galleries known as 49 Geary Street, and I wanted to tell you about that as well.

Besides Hockney's fascinating video work, there is much more to savor at this sprawling de Young exhibition, which with more than 300 works shown in 18,000 square feet of gallery space is the biggest in the history of the museum.

Hockney hasn't lost his love of (and occasionally snarky use of ) vivid colors, which helped catapult him to fame decades ago. He relishes his intense portrait works, many of whose subjects he's known for years. Floral watercolors demonstrate his powers of observation. He continues to appropriate the old masters in new and interesting ways — in this case a series of large paintings based on Claude Lorrain's "The Sermon on the Mount."

And the artist keeps expanding his vision — and has wholeheartedly embraced new technology.

Take, for example, the Yosemite pieces in the collection, which Hockney made during a 2010 visit to the park. Once Hockney got hold of an iPhone and iPad, he couldn't let them go. His work is clever, bouncy, bright, flip and wonderful.

His "Yosemite Suite" collection of iPad paintings is given dazzling technological display in the exhibition. With certain pieces, you're actually able to follow his digital keystrokes as they unfold on video monitors. It's like being there on the scene, looking over his shoulder, as the work is first created. What would artists from centuries past — the Da Vincis and Monets — think if they were able to witness such moments? My guess is they would be stunned.

In most cases, the sizes of the works live up to the scale promised in the exhibition title. Some of the iPad paintings, for example, are enormous at 12 feet tall. The gallery in which they're hung also includes the reworked "Sermon on the Mount" series, and the vastness of the scale gives a spiritual, cathedral feel to the space.

The general bigness also adds a lot of punch to Hockney's fascination with landscapes, which he spent much of the past decade pursuing. For me, a high point of the exhibition is the way he keeps returning to England's Woldgate Woods, which he revisits in various seasons and using different techniques — from oils to video.

That emphasis on the seasons was how I felt myself surrounded in the Woldgate video portion. In front of me was winter. As I turned to look at the other three works, I witnessed spring, summer and fall. Circling slowly, with 36 video screens wrapping me in their embrace, I felt somehow both safe and unsettled. Time seemed to stop and yet rush away. After Hockney suffered a minor stroke in 2012, time is even more important to him.

The exhibition's biggest impact on me is the way it made me see the world just a little differently. Hockney often reminds us that big images are made up of smaller ones. Turning his large works into grids of smaller canvases — or video screens — reminds us that while we might like to think that we can quickly and authoritatively take in images on grand, panoramic scales, the true wonder is often in the details. It's funny to think that a show all about "Big" made me think small.


IF YOU GO

"David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition," through Jan. 20, de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco. deyoungmuseum.org, (415) 750-3600. $25, with discounts for youth, students and seniors

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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