Portraiture is often seen within the realms of contemporary art as a stade act. A portrait symbolises ideas surrounding the establishment and wealth, and within recent times portraiture arguably has had a faltering practice. For example, in Paul Emsley’s awful official portrait of Kate Middleton, she looks old, faded and unimaginative. Gone are the days of Freud-style portraiture, where the language of the human psyche was discovered through the intense scrutinisation of the subject, as one can now find out all they need to know about the private lives of an individual from the click of a few buttons.
Seemingly artists have recently responded to the lacklustre feeling of portraiture, by presenting something rawer, more bodily in some senses; artists like Philip Gurrey or Jenny Saville intimately display the rawness of flesh as a form in their works. However, in Hockney’s latest show, ’82 portraits and 1 still-life’ he aims to display portraiture not as a stuffy, establishment work, or a existential response to the form of the body, but rather views portraiture as a test – an experiment with which some simple conditions apply, and the results are magnificent.
Each of Hockney’s portraits were painted over the course of three six-hour sittings with each subject, sat within the same cream-yellow upholstered chair. The consequences, although often similar in composition and colour scheme, however produced beautiful individualised representations of the subject, in Hockney’s custom saturated style. There is a kindness to these portraits, and as they are painted in such a quick manner over a very short period of time, one sees the culmination of 3 days spent, just beginning to uncover the secrets of the sitter, whilst also portraying the version of themselves they choose to present through their clothing, stance and expression.
These works prove dynamic together – as separate portraits they would still be enigmatic, but as a whole they make an interesting comment on the spectrum of human individuality. One chooses to present themselves through their tastes and styling, however, as seen with Hockney’s saturated pink hues, we are all mortal and inherently similar. When entering the Sackler Wing where the show takes place, one is struck by the rich contrast between the oxblood walls and the brilliant turquoises of the backgrounds of the portraits. This contrast seems to ground the works, as they meander around the space, unifying the subjects between the clutches of such powerful colours. This allows the viewer to not only examine the works individually, but democratically observe the works as a whole, looking down the walls, examining the slights and differences of the works, and the inherent humanity that Hockney has so strikingly displayed in each portrait.
These works are a clear departure from Hockney’s digital iPad drawings, in that they have obvious physicality, the brushstrokes are tangible, filled with energy, yet considered and complimentary to the subjects. But the curiosity which Hockney has always indulged throughout his career is still incredibly present here – to wonderful effect.