Through the coded figure of snakes, Hockney‘s work is an unapologetic engagement with homoerotic desires veiled behind phallic imagery at a time when sex between men was still illegal in England. This clandestine sensuality was expressed in Hockney’s early works such as Love Paintings, which evoked homosexual passion through mock anonymity and subtle references that alluded to male love. The image of the snake a powerful symbol of Hockney’s inner sexual desires, not only due to its phallic connotations, but also because it was also inspired by his then-lover Mark Berger, who kept snakes as pets. Hockney would later also borrow inspiration from Mark in his work Jungle Boy (1964), an etching that depicted an extremely hirsute man gazing intimately at a large snake.
The snake served as a powerful tool with which Hockney could test the bounds of painting, not only through its sexual undertones, but also through its stylistic versatility. Inspired by Picasso’s 1960 retrospective at the Tate, Hockney began to conceive style as an element that could be played with and even mocked. For the artist, this did not only necessitate a demonstration of versatility, but also an ability to mimic his contemporaries, in order to undermine their very premises. In the same year as 3 Snakes, Hockney submitted four works for the exhibition Young Contemporaries in London, all of which displayed stylistic multiplicity through illusionism and flatness, representing the processes available to the medium of paint. “I was conscious of the current ideas about painting. For instance flatness: flatness was something that people really talked about then and I was interested in” (David Hockney cited in: Nikos Stangos, Ed., David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1976, p. 88).
3 Snakes both inherits and parodies the post-painterly abstraction of artists like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland – the rivulets of paint on unprimed canvas mimic Louis, while the concentric circles and inverted-V shapes, mock Noland’s chevrons. In the process, it tests the bounds of representation and illusion, cunningly appearing like decoration on canvas, as the depicted flatness of the snakes fuse with the literal flatness of the canvas. Through this seminal work, Hockney revitalises the practice of paint by addressing the very basics of art, bringing his snakes to life at a moment when the death of painting had been proclaimed.
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