Californian artist John Baldessari is known for his film, photography and painting since he started working in the 60’s. In the late 70’s and 80’s he began to use other peoples’ photographs in his own work and use film stills from old Hollywood films. He gathered images in abundance and used them to create photo collages, experimenting with the juxtaposition of images to explore the nature of communication and perception. Baldessari’s arbitrary juxtapositions make us question how we read images.
Concerning Diachronic/Synchronic Time: Above, On, Under (with Mermaid) 1976: The pictures stacked vertically represent events taking place simultaneously (synchronically) while those juxtaposed horizontally represent successive instants (diachronically). But only the middle pair adhere to this rule, showing a boat moving across the horizon. On the other in hand, the others are formal rhymes, in the pair at the top a plane turns into a bird and in the pair at the bottom a submarine turns into a mermaid. The middle images can be read in terms of narrative while the others must be read in terms of association.
Violent Space Series: Nine Feet (of Victim and Crowd) Arranged by Position in Scene, 1976: Everything is hidden except for the circles which reveal people’s feet. The arrangement of the feet, in conjunction with the title, suggests that this is the scene of a crime where a crowd of curious onlookers are standing around a figure lying on the ground (evidently the victim). It’s amazing how much we can read in an image with such little information.
Kiss/Panic, 1984: photographs of hands holding revolvers frame two central images, one a panicked crowd scene and the other an intimate kiss, offering two extremes of human emotion: fear and passion. All the photographs are in black and white except the one of the kiss. The menacing mood created by the pointing guns connotes a certain anxiety about intimacy while the kissing mouths suggest a warmth of human feeling in the midst of this panic and aggression.
Spaces Between (Close to Remote), 1986: collection of horizontal scenes in which the distance between two characters grows wider. Each time more imagery separates them: a bouquet of flowers, scenery, other people)
Horizontal Men, 1984: A sinister work in which images of standing men are rotated so that they appear to be lying down and stacked one on to op of the other, like a stack of bodies. Refers to the Holocaust, based on the images of bodies in concentration camps
Hockney always criticised photography, saying that it caused many of today’s artists to forsake figurative art, he says, “A camera cannot see what a human can see, there is always something missing”, and refers to the inability of a camera to reproduce a sense of space and volume. “A photograph records a split second in time, but a painting or sculpture is in fact a culmination of days, weeks, or even years, of looking at a single subject. It is the result of a vast quantity of stored information, experience, sketches, and spacial sensitivity that finally appears in one final work of art.”
But in the mid 1960s Hockney started experimenting with the camera and found a way to overcome the shortcomings of photography with his innovative “joiners” or “photo-collages.” These are large assemblages of photographs which create a complete picture from a series of individually photographed details that produce an almost cubist effect. With his joiners Hockney managed to use photography to create a more complete representation of a landscape, portrait, or still life, which incorporated time and volume into the final product.
In the 80s Hockney embraced the new technologies of Xerox machines and the Quantel Paintbox. With the same curiosity he began to experiment with the Fax machine, which he was fascinated with, calling it “the wonderful machine, the enemy of totalitarianism, the return of handwritten letters.” He sent whole exhibitions by fax to be printed out and assembled on arrival and in 1989 he sent work for the Sao Paulo Biennial by fax.
Hockney showed interest in computers in the past, but not until recently has he started to incorporate them in his practice, he says the speed of modern computers makes working with them far more attractive. So Hockney’s adoption of the iPad and iPhone is the natural next step in his interest in using technology to develop and explore art.
In the last few years he has left his home in LA and settled in Bridlington, he says “Bridlington may be physically isolated, but it’s not electronically isolated. The technology is as good here as it is in LA.” When the exhibition at the Royal Academy had first been discussed four years ago, Hockney had never even heard of an iPad, let alone worked with one. Nowadays he is rarely without his iPad, which functions as a sketchpad, full-sized canvas, and convenient device for sending e-mails. “It’s like an endless piece of paper that perfectly fitted the feeling I had that painting should be big,”
Hockney is so enamoured of this new technology he goes so far as to say, “Picasso would have gone mad with this. So would Van Gogh. I don’t know any artist who wouldn’t actually.” Hockney feels it’s a real privilege to be making these works of art through digital tools “which means you don’t have the bother of water, paints, and the chore of clearing things away.”
He prefers to use his fingers rather than a stylus, giving him the freedom to create different effects with each finger, and even though he is right-handed, he often uses his left hand when drawing on the iPad, giving his drawings a new quality. He says, “You know sometimes I get carried away, I wipe my fingers at the end thinking that I’ve got paint on them.”
It is wonderful and exciting to see such a mature artist as Hockney tackling these new technologies with such enthusiasm and success. As with his experimentation with Xerox and Fax machines, his work with the iPad brings up questions about the nature of “originals” and “reproductions”, and the value – both aesthetic and monetary – of a work of art. However this does not appear to deter Hockney, who is, above all, interested in stretching the boundaries of his artistic practice.