David Hockney at the Lightroom review: full immersion into the artist’s career produces mixed results

Installation of David Hockney’s Gregory Swimming Los Angeles March 31st, 1982 (David Hockney)
Installation of David Hockney’s Gregory Swimming Los Angeles March 31st, 1982 (David Hockney)

We’ve seen immersive Van Gogh and immersive Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, so it was only a matter of time before we saw immersive David Hockney, given his equivalent popularity.

Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away) features a journey through the British painter’s life and work, projected onto four-storey-high walls in King’s Cross’s Lightroom space. It promises to bathe you in Hockney’s light and colour, so you can feel almost overwhelmed by his works, from the ripples of those Los Angeles pools to the space of the Grand Canyon, and be lifted by his relentless enthusiasm and indefatigable desire to keep looking and making.

The popularity of these new sons et lumières (sound and light shows) across the world is undeniable, however puzzling they appear to some of us who really want to be see the paintings in their original form, with the singular properties that make them Kahlos or Van Goghs, and find plenty of immersion in them despite their diminutive size. The fact that they embrace you into their world on that scale is, I think, part of their magic.

But the Hockney event at least promised to be something more substantial: he has long experimented with new media, from Polaroids to fax machines and the iPad. He’s also made colossal – you might even say immersive – work, from the Grand Canyon paintings of the 1990s to more recent pieces made in Yorkshire.

And he’s done wall-filling video installations. One wonders what on earth Van Gogh, who was so particular about scale, texture and method in his letters, would have thought of a blurry 360 degree Starry Night; that Hockney is directly involved in the Lightroom event is a good thing. Likewise, that Nicholas Hytner, former artistic director of the National Theatre, is the show’s executive producer.

Installation of David Hockney’s The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (David Hockney)
Installation of David Hockney’s The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (David Hockney)

The experience is divided into chapters that explore different aspects of Hockney’s now seven-decade career. There’s a section on his views on perspective, thematic looks at his swimming pools and his exploration of roads and paths, and segments about his photo-collages, designs for the stage and “close looking”. Each introduces distinct groups of works that Hockney talks us through, explaining his motivations and methods.

In this format, their effectiveness varies wildly. Those multi-image photo-collages from the 1980s, where Hockney sought to explode traditional perspective, creating photographic equivalents to cubist experiments, translate well as vast projections.

The iPad drawings and animations that punctuate the hour-long programme are as ropey and unsatisfying as they are on a smaller scale, the extreme limitations of their medium exposed by the images’ monumentality. But Nico Muhly’s music is often lyrically beautiful.

The section on Hockney’s stage designs is genuinely brilliant, involving us in Hockney’s stirring use of space so that, for instance, we are on the ship he conceived for Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Who’d have thought that an essentially theatrical event would work best with theatrical formats?

But there’s too much that disappoints and irritates. You don’t really get a feel for much of the best of his work. There are none of the marvellous paintings from the very early 1960s, the exquisite drawings of the 1970s. There’s limited art history, too, so there’s no explanation as to why so much of what we’re looking at resembles the work of Picasso. Neither do you get a feel for the materiality of the media he extols; somehow the luscious beauty of paint, its very stuffness, gets entirely lost when blown up this big.

Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away) (Justin Sutcliffe)
Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away) (Justin Sutcliffe)

The images are projected onto walls with huge seams between the boards that form them and patches of breeze blocks, denying the smooth illusion that immersion surely depends on. Then there’s the relentless movement.

In one section, the space fills with images of Hockney’s sketchbooks with drawings and watercolours, to my mind infinitely more powerful than those wretched iPad sketches. But we can’t dwell on them for much more than a second before it’s gone. Sketchbooks become flipbooks. Which is all a bit odd given there’s such an emphasis in Hockney’s narration on observation: “You have to look,” he tells us. Well, we can’t, David.

And that brings me to the man himself. It’s obviously hugely impressive that he’s still making art every day; that, as he tells us, “I’ve painted for 60 years now. I’m still painting. And I’m still enjoying it enormously.” But I don’t enjoy the smugness and bias in some of his utterances. “With photography you’re not really looking,” he reckons, which is absurd. And “most people don’t look very much. They scan the ground in front of them so they can walk, but they don’t really look at things incredibly well, with intensity. I do,” he adds.

If you revere Hockney, you’ll love this. But if, like me, you see him as a once, and still occasionally, brilliant but often flawed artist, I am not sure it’s for you. And it’s not so much an art experience as a 360-degree documentary.

Lightroom, from February 25 to June 4; lightroom.uk