Three years ago, Yorkshire-born Hockney left his Bridlington home and returned to Los Angeles. Despite having lived in various parts of California on and off for three decades, this was no ordinary relocation — it was a retreat, following the tragic death of the artist’s 23-year-old assistant, Dominic Elliott, from a drink and drugs overdose in Hockney’s Bridlington studio.
Early in 2012, the year before this tragic incident occurred, the Royal Academy held their last Hockney show. Named A Bigger Picture, it was a collection of vivid, colourful and large-scale landscapes inspired by the wild and unique beauty of the artist’s East Yorkshire surroundings. In retrospect, the contrast between his current work and the broad outlook displayed in that group of works provides a telling insight into the journey the septuagenarian has been on. His latest show, entitled 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life, is of a distinctly more inward-looking and intimate nature, demonstrating how his return to L.A. may not have been a purely physical retreat, but perhaps also a psychological one.
Featuring — you guessed it — 82 portraits and one still-life painting, the deeply personal collection is regarded by Hockney as one complete body of work. Completed during the last two and a half years at the artist’s L.A. studio, each portrait depicts an individual connected in some way to Hockney’s personal life, including his family and friends, as well as acquaintances from the art world such as curators, gallerists, and office staff. In a remarkably poignant touch given the circumstances of his move to Los Angeles, the very first painting in the series is of his studio assistant and friend, Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, who sits crouched with his head cradled in his hands, demonstrating his own quiet devastation at the death of Elliott.
Painted after a period of inactivity, the process clearly provided a kind of sanctuary for Hockney, inspiring the project that would see Jean-Pierre’s portrait recreated 81 times. Each painting is a celebration of the unique character of its subject, and yet there is a peculiar conformity between them— each subject is painted against the same blue-hued background, each seated on the same chair, each painting completed over a three day period and on canvases of identical sizes.
Whilst this is not the first time tragedy or pain has led Hockney back to portraiture — the genre as a whole seems to have served as something of a safe space for him throughout his long career — the consistency inherent to this collection is unique, as though representing a search for stability amongst a sea of grief, an attempt to preserve those close to him in a moment of stasis.
Yet this collection is far from somber, even less so despairing, Jean-Pierre’s portrait aside. Though it may have been borne out of tragedy, it is full of vivacity and zest, with a subtle celebratory quality — the paintings speak of a love for people and their uniqueness, and are an exaltation of life and the personal relationships with which it is filled. Blue hues are so often associated with melancholia, but Hockney’s chosen palette is distinctly warm — and reminiscent of much of his earlier work, perhaps the tropical feel of his L.A. swimming pools in particular. But, after all, this collection is a documentation not of a retreat into grief, but of a recovery that leads out of it, and beneath the sorrow, optimism shines through.
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