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Contesting Perspectives With David Hockney – In Lithographs

By Guan Tan

Hotel Acatlan: Two Weeks Later. 1985. Lithograph. 73 by 188cm.
 
David Hockney/Tyler Graphics Ltd./Richard Schmidt
Hotel Acatlan: Two Weeks Later. 1985. Lithograph. 73 by 188cm.

It's an articulate year for the English painter David Hockney. He has had three major retrospectives in 2017 so far — namely, Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria, London's Tate Britain, Paris' Centre Pompidou — with another two toward the end of the year in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Singapore's STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, which will be hosting a two-month-long exhibition, 'David Hockney: A Matter of Perspective' in July.

Curator Tessa Chung took "several months" to pull together 35 of Hockney's pieces from Singapore Art Museum's collection. She then reached out to a private collector for Hockney's recent photographic drawing, '4 Blue Stools' (2014). 
 

David Hockney/ Richard Schmidt4 Blue Stools, 2014. Photographic drawing printed on paper, mounted on Dibond. 108 by 176.5cm.
4 Blue Stools, 2014. Photographic drawing printed on paper, mounted on Dibond. 108 by 176.5cm.

Chung's selection will showcase Hockney's prowess for artistic mediums – from paint on paper to lithography, "a medium that vastly differs from his paintings. Printmaking processes require different approaches when it comes to constructing an image. You literally think and build in layers." Lithography is a printing technique where a smooth slab of aluminium is carved and greased, and its pattern imprinted on all kinds of medium, from canvas, acrylic, glass, fabrics, wood, to paper. 

David Hockney/ Tyler Graphics Ltd./ Richard SchmidtWalking Past Two Chairs, 1986. Lithograph, screen-print, hand-painted frame. 116.5 by 71.7cm.
Walking Past Two Chairs, 1986. Lithograph, screen-print, hand-painted frame. 116.5 by 71.7cm.

In his artistic pursuit, Hockney contested perspective – the relativity of photographs and paintings to reality. "He felt that conventional methods of representation tend to freeze [viewers] in a single moment, echoing a camera’s snapshot, but not real life," Chung explains. For that, Hockney challenged the 300-year-old Western art institution of 'vanishing point'. 

Take his 1986 lithograph, 'Walking Past Two Chairs' for instance. "The chairs, table and flower vase... [are] reversed in space and presented in multiple viewpoints." The objects look warped to us, only because our eyes are accustomed to the dominating perspective of the vanishing point – where straight lines are always parallel and proportionate to the image's frame. But in here, Hockney broke out of the normative perspective. Instead of having the objects "[recede] into a distant point", he stretched them toward the viewers. 

The floorboards were "screen-printed onto the acrylic itself" by Hockney, and it stretches out into a hand-painted frame, which brings dimension to the flat lithograph. Altogether, Hockney created a sculptural piece of art with "multiple viewpoints, [which] reflects the ever-changing perspective your eye sees in reality". Standing before the artwork, you'll feel as if you've had a short-term stay in Hockney's studio – strolling past the chairs, table, and flower vase that Hockney had with him. Maybe this is what Hockney meant when he talked about the immersive, parallel universe-like function of art, "We do not look at the world from a distance; we are in it, and that's how we feel."
 

David Hockney/ Tyler Graphics Ltd./ Richard SchmidtAn Image of Celia, 1984. Lithograph, screen-print, collage, hand-painted frame. 121.5 by 169.2cm.
An Image of Celia, 1984. Lithograph, screen-print, collage, hand-painted frame. 121.5 by 169.2cm.

In another lithograph of his muse, Celia Birtwell, – wife of the late British fashion designer Ossie Clark – Hockney questioned the concept of vanishing point once again. "it is not a static portrait," Chung quips. He "acknowledges the movement of the sitter and the viewer's eye". The fractured face, chair, background, and changing tones of Birtwell's skin manifests the movement of Hockney seated before Birtwell. It's his way of documenting the passage of time.

Hockney's techniques for lithography was complex. His 1985, 188cm-wide piece christened 'Hotel Acatlan: Two Weeks Later', (pictured above) was constructed from 41 aluminium print plates, and 28 colours. "Every colour added is a separate plate... The image is not formed on a single plane like a painting... Hockney had to form it together piecemeal." 

Alongside with his collaborator Kenneth Tyler, Hockney drew "directly onto layers of transparent plastic sheets with lithographic inks and crayons. They were then processed [into aluminium slates] and printed back in the studio. This was an unconventional process in the method of lithography." Chung also notes that this piece is "considered to be Hockney's most ambitious print project" due to the massive technical feat it entailed.

David Hockney/ Tyler Graphics Ltd./ Richard SchmidtTwelve Fifteen, 1991. Lithograph. 144.8 by 111.9cm.
Twelve Fifteen, 1991. Lithograph. 144.8 by 111.9cm.

Beyond his famed paintings and lithographs, Hockney has "worked across...photography, theatre design, video, as well as the bold and unexpected mediums of technology such as fax machines, photocopiers, and most recently, iPhone, and iPad apps."

"The iPad works do not feature in this show, but I did see them at the Tate retrospective and it was really refreshing. You would think such a method would appear controversial, perhaps, be met with some scorn – just like how there's always been that issue with photography, whether it ought to be considered art," Chung debates. To her, the medium artists work with will change with time. But the "draughtsmanship and sensitive eye" is what counts. 

The varying mediums have changed Hockney's artistic style, and art analysts like Chung are still playing catch with Hockney till date.

"It's hard to 'categorise' Hockney," Chung adds. The exhibition will cover all decades – from his mid-1960s flat lithographs, to his "naturalistic crisp lines" and photographic drawings from the 1970s, his lithographic experimentation on perspectives in the 1980s, the abstract lithographs from the 1990s, and recent photographic drawings from the 2010s. 

 

'David Hockney: A Matter Of Perspective' runs from 1 July to 9 September 2017 at the STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, 41 Robertson Quay.