Is David Hockney a major international contemporary artist? Apparently not major enough to yet merit a retrospective in Chicago over the past five decades of his career, and he has been a celebrity art-star from the very beginning. Since the 1980s, though, Chicagoans have gotten to see some of Hockney’s pieces for sale at the Richard Gray Gallery. The painter often depicts contemporary life, but like a painter from the Italian Renaissance, it’s the fashionable life of the highly privileged. And like all famous paintings from earlier centuries, his works of art “announce themselves as such, which can only be done by what we call sensual beauty and grace,” as Goethe put it in 1798. As fresh and brash and spontaneous as Hockney’s paintings feel, his mimetic pursuit of those delightful qualities sets him outside the dominant discourses of contemporary art, and he hasn’t been shy about advocating his position. He’s always experimenting with materials, techniques and patterns, but he doesn’t push the conceptual boundaries of art or meaning. Instead, he uses the traditional subjects of portrait, still-life and landscape to celebrate the ecstatic possibilities for a wonderful life on planet earth—just like a high-end fashion or interior designer.
The paintings and drawings in the current show date from 1975 to 1998, and they touch on the kinds of beautiful people, places and things to which Hockney has frequently returned. There’s a small painting of a swimming pool in the Hollywood Hills, a vibrant armchair in homage to Van Gogh, and one of his theatrical double portraits of friends. Indeed, all of these pieces feel theatrical, even operatic, set into that special world we seek when escaping the often ugly banalities of daily life.
In one of the artist’s more recent works, executed with an ink-jet printer from drawings made on an iPad, Hockney shows he is not afraid of learning new technology, especially if it enhances spontaneity. But how sad it looks in comparison with the earlier, eye-popping works, all done with oil, acrylics or colored pencil applied directly to canvas or paper. And an intense joy of NOW! is really what Hockney most has to offer the world of art. (Chris Miller)
Through January 11 at Richard Gray Gallery, 875 North Michigan.