Los Angeles

David Hockney, The Red Table, 2014, photographic drawing printed on paper mounted on Dibond, 42 1/2 × 69 1/2".

David Hockney, The Red Table, 2014, photographic drawing printed on paper mounted on Dibond, 42 1/2 × 69 1/2".

David Hockney

David Hockney, The Red Table, 2014, photographic drawing printed on paper mounted on Dibond, 42 1/2 × 69 1/2".

Around 2008, when David Hockney began making work on iPhones, the artist opined, “Who would have thought that the telephone would bring back drawing?” It was a glib statement for a painter who clearly relishes the opportunity to remind audiences of his engagement with new technology. After all, in hindsight (several years and countless Apple hard- and software updates later), Hockney’s remark would seem to reveal a strikingly limited understanding of the smartphone. Even as far back as 2009, the majority of its users only sporadically accessed the device’s application for making direct calls. Instead, we have continually harnessed its capabilities to hail cabs, refresh social-media feeds, compute tips, send hasty e-mail replies, or layer photo filters.

For this exhibition at L.A. Louver, Hockney turned his attention to photographic postproduction digital editing, aiming to challenge what he has criticized as photography’s warped realism, beholden as the camera is to one-point perspective. The artist’s recent digitally made works echo his celebrated Reagen-era photocollage Pearblossom Highway 5, 11–18th April, 1986 #2, in which he similarly used alternative photographic techniques to draw the viewer’s attention to the artificially forced perspective of standard photography, in contrast to the flood of perspectives available to the naked eye. Hockney’s show at L.A. Louver included dozens of acrylics on canvas interspersed with large prints mounted on Dibond termed “photographic drawings.” Many works from both media represent men at a table playing cards or Scrabble. In the painting Card Players #2, 2014, three male figures examine their decks within a sparely decorated interior marked by lurid lavender walls and gold-hued floor. Their playing table, which centers the composition, takes a distinctively flipped perspective, by which the surface’s longest and shortest edges are those that are respectively (and awkwardly) positioned farthest and closest to the observer, giving it the appearance of being trapezoid-shaped. Hockney plays with perspective in the photographic collages as well. Notably, several depict an ambiguous multipurpose interior, scattered with wooden folding chairs and walled on one side by a temporary-looking beige curtain. Perspective Should Be Reversed, 2014, set within this drab interior, prominently inverts the vanishing point of a red table in the print’s foreground toward the viewer. The wood-paneled surface is decorated with accoutrements including still-life citrus arrangements, T. J. Clark’s 2013 Picasso and Truth, and a meandering string of freestanding letters spelling out (in a flourish of ham-fisted didacticism) the title of the work.

The photographic pieces were compiled from hundreds of images collaged into digital files and blended together via postproduction smoothing and clipping tools, a process that gave the composites an overall appearance of seamlessness. Hockney has described his photographic collages as having “an almost 3D effect without the glasses,” seemingly gesturing to a more immersive experience for the viewer. Some works, such as The Red Table, 2014, carefully approach this visual effect. Here, the profile of a bespectacled, middle-aged man in the collage’s extreme left foreground looks across from one end of the image to its opposite top-right corner. The man’s palpably large figure, cropped by the work’s edges, appears nearest the viewer. While lacking the wonkily skewed angles that mark most of Hockney’s experiments with perception, The Red Table, like its exhibition mate Perspective Should be Reversed and much of Hockney’s “Card Players” series, 2014–(both those on canvas and on Dibond), appears bottom-heavy. The foreground and middle ground of both The Red Table and Perspective Should Be Reversed spill downward in a way that is perplexingly messy to the eye, in turn creating a discord between viewer and image.

In the artist’s words, such emphasis (here exaggerated) on foreground and the tyranny of the vanishing point within typical Western depictions of space are the roots of the trouble with conventional perspective, a problem from which digital photography can “free us” and make possible “the ultimate realist picture.” Given Hockney’s insistence that it is human optics that structures such an ultimate image, one might wonder: Which reality is the artist seeking to represent? It seems inadequate, if not myopic, to predicate an understanding of realism on values of optical mimesis and visibility, when what produces our visual reality today extends to what is retouched, appropriated, censored, slimmed, suppressed, and encrypted, and might be generated wholly independent of a photographic index. Hockney’s positioning of photographic realism (and the way it informs his paintings) would benefit from an expanded notion of reality itself. One recalls his earlier remarks on the smartphone, which (unwittingly) reflected a comparably constrained delineation of purpose and functionality. If photography is to one day propose “the ultimate realist picture,” it must be freed from the function of visualizing an optical truth.

Nicolas Linnert