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Dec 2006 Journal

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Arts Notes (review)

David Hockney has so many faces you can barely recognise them all. From his double portraits to the playful way he paints water as blue or pink swirls of glinting sunlight, to his sketches, photography and experimental works, the quiet Yorkshireman is perfectly on-message. You can find traces of Picasso, Dali, Vermeer and the Impressionists - even a touch of Francis Bacon - and yet each work, painted with detail, assuredness and a pure innocence, is entirely Hockney. The likeness is swift, abrasive to the point of caricature. He gives you sharp contrasts, light and shadow, brilliant colour and looming darkness, either in the pose or the background.

Until 21 January David Hockney Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery spans 150 works over five decades in a variety of media, all proving he is still on top form. At the preview, he struck a tall, imposing figure in a beige suit and red tie, and with his fine, jutting profile he looked more magnate than maestro. His double portraits are imposing, rigid, often symbolic: in one, his mother sits primly on her chair while his father is bent over a newspaper. Beside a vase of flowers is a mirror in which his father's profile can be glimpsed. What's this - a metaphor for his filial self?

In the '60s Hockney hobnobbed with the arty glitterati and his famous double-take of Ossie Clark and her husband with Percy the cat, is a pure conversation piece. Ossie in a long black dress faces the viewer while Mr Clark, seated, faces the cat. It is a typical pose; often it is a pause in communication. But it is also neo-classical, evoking the brooding symbolism of the Italian High Renaissance.

A long period of introspection led to a series of self-portraits in 1983. He writes of himself: 'Obviously I had some facility, more than other people, but sometimes facility comes because one is more interested in looking at things - the visual world - than other people are.'

Hockney, for all his fame, remains close to his Bradford roots. Among his many portraits of his mother, one stands out. She is folded into a chair, tiny, cuddly with piercing blue eyes and arthritic hands. You can feel him reaching out to her.

There There's shock and awe at the Royal Academy's USA Today exhibition, in which 40 young American Saatchi-selected artists strut their stuff. It could be the daughter of the 1997 Saatchi/RAcollaborative exhibition which produced Sensation, where maggots, dead cows, Myra Hindley, flayed skin and genitalia brought in a record number of visitors.

Behind this latest show, 9/11 lurks like the Angel of Death with all the technology of violence - industrial imagery, falling buildings, convulsive abstracts. The materials reflect this too. Huma Bhabha's sculpture posed in Islamic prayer is made from wire and black plastic bags. Adam Svijanovic's huge installation in which houses and debris fall out of a clear blue sky is disturbing, while Erick Swenson's dead deer with antlers peering out of the snow is moving.
Gloria Tessler

previous article:My Australian misadventure
next article:A life without bitterness or hatred (review)