Artist swims toward the L.A. light

An exhibition reveals painter David Hockney's interest in photography

British by birth, Californian by choice, artist David Hockney has made a career of capturing quintessential Los Angeles life in his well-known works of the past several decades. From the splash of a swimmer in his pool ("A Bigger Splash") to "A Lawn Being Sprinkled," his paintings contain a relentless appreciation of a sunny outdoor lifestyle.

Mr. Hockney himself is unapologetic about the psychology of the images he paints, as well as his interest in images suffused with bright light. "When you're interested in light and its effects," says the artist, "the dark side is difficult to depict." This predisposition toward well-lit and apparently upbeat themes is normal, he adds. "We are all naturally attracted to the light," says the Brit, who settled permanently in Los Angeles in 1978.

"We're not really attracted to the darkness, and even when we are, we're actually just trying to get out of it. It is entirely natural for human beings to go toward light."

"David Hockney Retrospective: Photoworks," an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, reveals another side of the painter - his more than four-decade-long interest in photography.

As the show curators point out, although Hockney initially employed a camera as an aid in preparing for his oil works, photography has taken on a life of its own in his oeuvre.

"His work redefines the nature of photography," says Jeremy Strick, director of MOCA. The show walks us through the ways in which Hockney has explored and redefined the photographic image.

"If you look at Picasso or [Georges] Braque," says Reinhold Misselbeck of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, for whom the show was initially assembled, "you see that their Cubist work presents purposefully different views of the same thing because they are all broken up into parts."

This intention is less overt, but just as effective, in Hockney's photo collages, in which the painter assembles a large image, such as the Grand Canyon, from many smaller images. "With all these photos, time has elapsed between each little part of the image," Mr. Misselbeck says, "and you also move through space as you look at them all, just as in real life. That's what they teach us about creating space."

The impact of technology on the reproduced image is another theme that runs through Hockney's work. Computers have permanently altered the nature of photography, he points out.

"Now that the era of the digital image is here, photography is going back to drawing [and] painting, which is where its roots are to begin with," says Hockney, standing in front of his vast 88-paneled photomosaic of the Grand Canyon that is about 41 feet long. "Nobody need ever believe in the veracity of a photo's content now."

Although he lives in a city obsessed "with the now," Hockney says, he finds that while the tools might change, fundamental artistic concerns remain the same. "Florence of 600 years ago and today's Hollywood have lots in common," says Hockney, looking every bit the British ex-pat in a rumpled linen suit.

"Both cities are full of people trying to find vivid ways to depict reality. The method of delivery may be different, but that's not as interesting as the way the world is actually seen."

Nonetheless, despite his long-time love affair with Los Angeles, the hub of the film world, Hockney remains faithful to his first passion. "The still picture to me is powerful, I stick with that," he says. "I'm more interested in two dimensions, in playing with two dimensions, and trying to put three dimensions into two."

As for the future of painting in a time of great technological change, he cites the comments of a longtime friend, who advised him to visit museums rather than movie theaters. "He said, 'The pictures don't talk or move, and they'll last a lot longer.' "

To underline his belief that painting is not about to be eclipsed as a medium, he recalls a visit to see paintings by a 16th-century German painter of the court of Henry VIII.

"They're much easier to see than photos of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, don't you think?" he says.

'David Hockney Retrospective: Photoworks' is at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, through Oct. 21.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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