Balls on the walls

It's not just legend. David Hockney's first stab at conquering a new world was as ballsy as we can only hope our best-known artists might be -- you might even think it cinematic. But in his own words, the tale of a young North Englander moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s not only takes on the dimension of folklore, but incongruously shows up the unassuming nature of the artist himself:

"Within a week of arriving here in this strange big city, not knowing a soul, I'd passed the driving test, bought a car, driven to Las Vegas and won some money, got myself a studio, started painting, all in a week. And I thought, it's just how I imagined it would be."

Yes, it's all so cinematic and unassuming. The Bleached-Blond Bespectacled One came to Hollywood; he decided to pounce in his risky but nonintrusive way; and, all along, his artwork has reflected this character. Hockney, perhaps the most famous living painter, has built an astoundingly successful career on the unlikely mix of innocuous beauty and startling insight. His subjects may pack that Hockney mildness, but like a philosopher who speaks rarely and softly, his underlying intentions are intelligent almost beyond radar levels. It takes a while to understand the cleverness of a Hockney, and in an era where contemporary art often gets its point across by grabbing you by the face and shaking you (more of a bully than a thinker, really), time with a Hockney is time well spent.

Since becoming what is essentially California's favorite adopted son, Hockney has shifted methods as often as that state introduces diet trends, and each phase is embraced just as heartily by his public. Now, at Pillsbury Peters Fine Art, a quasi-retrospective of his work illuminates just that: Hockney doesn't sit still for long -- in terms of material, style, or geography -- yet pretty much everything he attempts, he pulls off with the grace of a hopeful and experimental pro athlete. He's as good at playing third base as he is at playing tight end.

Photographic collages, printmaking, pure abstraction, cubism -- you name it, he's tried it and won. Most of the works on display in this aptly titled Visions and Revisions he produced between 1982 and 1986, though one room of the gallery is dedicated to a 1995 series of large inkjet prints. Don't go looking for "A Bigger Splash" or "Neat Lawn"; this isn't a museum exhibition dedicated to landmark pieces. It's a gallery, selling his work in a price range somewhere between "you can't afford it" and "dream on." But that shouldn't stop you from viewing Hockney's chops up close. And you won't miss his droll homages to the pretty Hollywood vacuum, given all you have to work with here.

What really stands out in Visions and Revisions, more so than usual about Hockney, is his way of re-interpreting the innovations of artists who came before him: Matisse, Picasso, even Caravaggio. Hockney has always copped to his obsession with cubism, though he admits he didn't "get it" until his residency in Paris during the mid-1970s, a decade or more after he'd been dabbling with cubist concerns. Here, his handful of "home-made prints" combine the deliberate decorative motifs of Matisse with the linear gestures of Picasso, faces reduced to a few crucial angles and dimension slipping into intentional flatness. In the affable "Man Reading Stendhal," for instance, the subject evokes a minotaur after a glass of sherry, sitting quietly, meditating on his pretentious tome, the background a wash of upside-down text. It's good-natured, winking at you while compelling you to look closer, daring you to dismiss what may be the best use of surface and volume since ol' Pablo himself did it decades before.

On the same note, "Ian and Heinz," a spontaneous-looking portrait of a dog and his owner (or at least his owner's Converse-shorn feet) evokes the movement of Giacomo Balla's "Leash in Motion." "Stanley in a Basket" is a dog with a brown coat that crosses the textures of Nickelodeon claymation with the hyper-painterliness of Van Gogh. In the hands of one so skilled, these tributes are charming, if not provocative in the face of people expecting the opposite from an established great. Why would Hockney, who managed to cultivate his own style right out of the starting gate (upon his graduation from the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1962 he was deemed the leader of Pop Art), lean back on other artists' styles?

But Hockney has never bowed to expectations, which has always been his most ironic and straight path to success. What he has done instead is continually explore what makes art work; he established his credibility early, then dedicated himself to being a life-long student of stylistic approaches. Where most artists figure out which of their tricks sells and then sticks to it with only superficial variations, Hockney ducks and dodges and reinvents himself every few years, something even he acknowledges as a type of formula, but nonetheless a far more liberating one. Rarely, if ever, is an artwork's endurance rooted in public expectation, and Hockney's instinct for that fact has endured perhaps even better than his work.

And just as he embraces the methods of artists who came before, he absorbs technological advances, employing fax machines and photocopiers and Polaroid cameras as readily as he does paint. What happens if one approaches cubism not with a paintbrush but rather with a camera? Fascinating things, as you can see at the Pillsbury show.

The giant photocollages of landscapes and conversations and quiet moments scatter and splay out over walls with controlled chaos. Dozens of smaller photos overlap to produce a massive, cohesive picture of a whole city block in Tokyo or a panoramic slice of Yosemite Valley or even a naked girlie bombshell. This is traditional cubism shaking hands with modern science: Capture different angles with the camera and let them work together. The nude (titled simply "Nude, 17th June 1984") is a mighty and tongue-in-cheek end to Picasso's initiative. The woman's face, thighs, belly, gaze -- all of it refracted and shattered and then brought back together to better communicate the essence of the moment. It has far more in common with, say "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" than with any photograph (and is, in many ways, just as derisive toward its subject). That this method is somewhat dated doesn't erase the fact that 15 years ago it was wholly new, or that it's still entertaining to look at. The same technique used for "Fredda Bringing Ann and Me a Cup of Tea, April 16 1983" epitomizes an underlying Hockney theme: warmth, ease, the subject of friendship and intimacy, all in a sunny setting. A large deck descends into a massive back yard populated by a Hockney posse, whose postures and props tell several stories, including one of a hapless film crew on the sidelines confounded by the over-relaxed manner of their host.

Artists have never emulated Hockney with the enthusiasm buyers display when faced with his work; he is essentially a dealer's wet dream. If this is because his work is ever-approachable (a much more sensible thing to hang above your fireplace than, say, an ungainly Bruce Nauman video installation or a lurid Cindy Sherman diorama) and most artists mistrust anything too easy, it's also in spite of Hockney's discrimination. Approachable, yes. There are works in Visions and Revisions that will have you thinking of Hallmark cards ("The Drooping Plant") and children's illustrations ("Stanley at 8 Weeks").

But again, Hockney's too smart to let his work be dismissed that easily. The "droop" of the plant looks swiped on with paint after the fact, but it's actually an integral part of the print. And the hefty little shape of Stanley the pooch is overlapped by subtle, swirling gesture lines that imply far more movement than any standard portrait. It's the same Hockney who descended quietly on Los Angeles and then dominated it; he has used illusion and an unexpectedly polite approach to conquer life and art. Just beneath the unassuming surface is one of the ballsiest artists of our time.

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Christina Rees