David Hockney’s forays into the landscape genre consist primarily of depictions of strong colors and the vibrant light of California, his adopted home. These creations have been infused with vestiges of his emotional attachment to America and the American landscape. The overpowering size, intricate and vibrant landscape in Canyon Painting encapsulates Hockney’s view of the geological landscape as a vivid and emotional human experience.
Hockney moved to Los Angeles for the first time in 1964, subsequently returning to the UK in 1968. The artist did not return to his beloved California until ten years later in the fall of 1978, a choice that would inform the majority of his practice and career. Upon arriving, Hockney immediately undertook several paintings using new, bright, acrylic paint. This bold chromatic experimentation led to Canyon Painting, 1978, which was the first landscape that the artist completed upon his return to California.
During this time, the artist was attempting to break free from naturalistic deception and conventional illusionistic space. This was one of the reasons he started to experiment with photography. Canyon Painting is representative of a period when Hockney began to explore a new range of vision, eschewing traditional perspective and channeling his love of French colorist painting. Canyon Painting subtlely combines Hockney's love of Cubist perspective theories, as represented by the colorfully faceted geometric planes – as well as his figurative abandonment for such fauve-like works, though retaining some of their presence. Hockney’s brushstrokes and palette reflect his interest and directly reference the pictorial style of Modern artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and Kandinsky.
Hockney began Canyon Painting experimenting with various color compositions to create transitions between hues. The deep turquoise color repeats across the picture plane – and its blended paint pockets contrast the short staccato-like brushstrokes in the canvas’ center. Rich oranges and reds also echo throughout. The work demonstrates the reactions of his new acrylic paint on the canvas, highlighting the permeability of the material. The captivating experiment affords Hockney a new ease with which to render his surfaces – and one that marked a radically different turn in his painting.
This landscape is not created from a privileged perspective. Nevertheless, the canvas’ structure invites the viewer in to the painting, and demands that the eye move across the picture plane into the fractured, shifting exterior. The vantage point shifts in a curvilinear motion, upwards to the mountains. The two striking black vertical poles in the foreground somewhat parallel the one figurative element of the painting – the tree – which recedes into the background. These shapes serve to stabilize the abstract composition of Canyon Painting. This work seems to embody Hockney's statement: "I like clarity, but I also like ambiguity: you can have both in the same painting, and I think you should." (David Hockney, That's the Way I See It, London 1993, p. 152). The energetic color and simplified forms are a reflection of his ceaseless pictorial experimentation and signals the transition into his abstractly figurative and striking body of work.
Throughout his storied career, Hockney's subjects form a simple catalogue of the visual world, seen every day by everyone. Choosing not to specialize, Hockney has explored a multitude of genres: portraits, still lifes, pastiches of cubist motifs, photo composites and landscape pictures. Style, illusionism, flatness all appear within the canvas of Canyon Painting. As in a painting of a postcard or a tourist's snapshot, the composition in this piece and the scenery emphasize the lush quality permitted by his new acrylic paint, highlighting Hockney's ability to translate beautifully his own personal experience of nature. The technique, materials and experimentation more generally also led to his revitalization of the genre of landscape painting.
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