A personal investigation by Linda Lay.
Monterey County is where I grew up, left, and recently returned to. If you don’t live in the area, you may have been seeing a lot of it on the popular HBO show, Big Little Lies. You may have come here on vacation at one point or another. We have art here, just like other places. A lot of it has to do with the natural landscape because it’s beautiful here. When I was growing up, it all seemed very “safe” and it bored me to death.
Now that I’m older and have learned to force myself to look closer; now that I know to dig deeper because something beautiful and simple can contain complexities and even difficult questions, I see there have been and are some extraordinary artists living and working here. It’s like anywhere else- there are limiting ideas that should be challenged, innovations to bring to the table, and some things to fight against. There are social concerns to address. There’s also money to be made, if one is so lucky. I used to only notice the latter, but now I feel some changes to the place. We have a college instead of a military base and we all know that the nearby Silicon Valley has formed into some kind of offshoot-rooting of global civilization’s sense of value and worth and maybe even into our perception of time itself. In addition to that, the techies all head out to Burning Man every summer (lol) and I’m sure a lot of them have second homes on the Monterey Peninsula. In my mind, it adds up to affecting a new kind of environment, or at least the potential for it. (Emphasis on the “in my mind” part of that sentence.)
One of the first things I noticed upon my return in 2018 was that the Monterey Museum of Art seemed different. For a while I was unsure if it had actually changed or it was just my own perspective via my hope to come home to a place that better suited my desire for community. It’s not like I had invested too much time in the art scene, before I left in the nineties, so who knows what I knew?
Through recent conversations and time spent with some thoughtful and hard-working artists in the area, it seems the (relatively) new executive director, Stuart Chase, has indeed been making some changes to the space and our community. For instance, he helped bring us our first Hockney show!
Now, let’s talk about digital imagery.
It surrounds us in marketing, journalism, movies, politics, art… the list is endless. It’s a part of our daily lives. So much so that I feel silly even mentioning it.
Most of us, just with our phones, know a lot more about making images using digital technology than we did ten years ago. Most of us are very comfortable manipulating our online identities, enhancing our “best qualities” and removing blemishes and wrinkles in photographs that we share with anyone willing to look. We add words and repetitive animations to our social media posts. All that being said, I’m not sure you should spend time with David Hockney’s nearly ten-year-old digital depictions of Yosemite, made on an iPad with the app called Brushes, that are currently on display at the Monterey Museum of Art, without context. You could, but it’s less interesting and not as fun. As someone who started using digital drawing programs in the early 90’s, it was at first kind of a funny thing to me, this body of work. It’s what made me want to write about it.
When I first viewed the art, during a crowded museum members-only preview, I was struck by the line-quality I often try and disguise, using the many digital “tools” on my chosen software programs and applications. When I teach my art and digital photo students, who are teenagers, how to use Photoshop, we spend a lot of time on the many different ways to create a smooth line, or to “correct” this or that texture, in order to reach a desired effect. That is, unless they are going for something intentionally pixelated or unrefined. The kids nowadays know that the difference in line-quality speaks to the sort of visual message they are sending.
In researching Hockney after seeing the Yosemite drawings, I found out that the folks at Adobe asked to meet with the artist in the Silicon Valley, way back in 1989, in regard to the use and (I’m imagining the) development of Photoshop. He knows a thing or two about art and technology, to say the least.
When many of us upload images to our social media stories, timelines, and profiles today, we hastily make marks, right and left. Sometimes it’s necessary to send a message quickly, in earnest, and sometimes we do so because the added imagery informs our story, our aesthetic, or our joke. Just think about how many memes are created and based around the various stages of social media technology. That’s what I mean when I talk about what “the kids” are doing.
When I use digital drawing elements in my own artwork, I often intentionally integrate the “shitty” lines as a part of my aesthetic dialog. I think it’s funny to create something that is attempting to bring in the feeling of something hand-made into the world where we can create a sense of visual perfection. The early days of MS Paint and Kid Pix almost seems to be hard-wired (pun intended) into my very being, not because I was a child back then, but because it was then when “everyday folks” first started to have access to computer programs that allowed a new kind of creative freedom as a form of play and distraction. I can’t create digital art without that past informing my work. I like the “person-ness” to show through, which I now know is something Hockney also cares about.
When I was in my early twenties and goofing around with those new programs (and others), David Hockney was a well-established artist who had been asked to use new platforms and software in order to inform companies about potential artistic mediums that would affect consumers like me. In Hockney’s Yosemite drawings we see the quickness of the sketches in the perfectly replicated “paint” spots made by the lingering touch of a finger or stylus, within his line-work. We see the little details we could hide, with little effort, when working with digital products. His lines aren’t made that way because he was just handed an iPad and left to play.
He’s in fact, very familiar with this kind of technology. For example, in 1986 Hockney was given the chance to use something called the Quantel Paintbox Graphics System. In watching the episode of a BBC 2 documentary Series called, Painting with Light, featuring David Hockney, I learned that his line-quality is 100% intentional. He was curious and innovative, but most importantly, investigating his interests. A year before the Yosemite drawings he had already been sketching in that manner, on his iPhone, and sending the images (of flowers) to friends via email.
In 2010 the iPad was new. It was announced as Star Trek technology entering our lives. We were in the future! I now perceive the Yosemite series as a reminder that drawing is still looking at something and making marks, no matter how evolved we think we are.
When I visited the show at MMA for a second time, I stopped thinking as much about the technology and found the work to be beautiful. I have to confess though, that I’m a fan. I love his colors and shapes and even how he always seems to be smiling a bit when he speaks. I like the joy I feel. Over the past few years I’ve also grown an interest in Hockney, as a fellow L.A. transplant, which I was for a few years, so I’ve invested time in learning some things, but have only scratched the surface.
In 2015 I made a point to trek through hour-and-a-half traffic from the San Fernando Valley to Venice Beach in order to see a body of work by Hockney at L.A. Louvre. This show combined installation and digital imagery as well as collage and portraiture using a brush and paint. I’d go so far as to say that spectacle was a part of it, as well.
I hadn’t been to one of his solo shows before, but I discovered more about him through his work in his book titled, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. I’d been talking to students about Hockney’s theory that painters have been taking advantage of technology like the Camera Obscura, in order to more accurately depict their subject matter. I also loved how Sister Wendy spoke about his 1980 painting, Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio, in an episode she did, focusing on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was on my mind.
When I finally made it to the show in Venice that summer evening, I was beyond frustrated but excited when I saw how many people were there. After grabbing a glass of white wine after a long day of teaching, driving and then winding around car traffic and people crowds until I found parking- I made my way through the galleries where his show hung. I very quickly noticed that some subjects within his paintings were present and being photographed in front of their portraits by people with iPhones. I was in the middle of something special.
What struck me was the inclusion of elements in the galleries that were also depicted in the artwork. People were standing and sitting in the images, sometimes painted, sometimes photographed, with and in the same position as they were in other artworks that were also part of the show. People, at least one chair, and I think a plant were in my reality as well as in the paintings and photographs that contained paintings and photographs of the same subject matter. Perspectives were intentionally skewed. A kid who may or may not have been one of his subjects sat in the corner of the gallery looking at an album filled with Pokemon cards. Hockney was investigating something and we were all included. To be there meant we ought to do some work. How cool!
Technology, celebrity, our own vanity, the space of a room, the gallery itself and color. Perspective. Chairs, plants, everyday people. Photographs of subjects looking at art books and looking at us. The colors of Hockney and California. It was a lot.
But let’s get back to Yosemite. That’s what the work in the Monterey show is presenting and I’d like to mention as well- how the exhibit also features photo collages that Hockney calls, Joiners, where he arranged photographs developed on paper (like one would get at a Fotomat) to create a more “painterly” sense of space and subject.
But why Yosemite? Has he had important personal experiences there? Has he been using the space because we might simply be familiar with the imagery? Is it too pretty? Is it that he’s known for making “California” art? Is it something to try and do something “new” with something we might have been oversaturated with, in regard to photography? Did I just use the word “something” too many times in that last sentence?
Yesterday I went on a walk through the eucalyptus grove near Del Monte Beach in Monterey. In all my years I’d never done that. My partner, Kenny, and I walked through it. It smelled great. There was a wooden path built between the grove and the beach and we took it. There were tangled Monterey Cypress trees displaying otherworldly angular bends. The deep-pine green of their needles contrasted the textured bark-browns and the redness of the ground. Beach sage in its “sagey” color tufted here and there with a softness that welcomed some other plants with bright orange and yellow flowers, hearty enough to survive the sand, fog and salty ocean winds. As the sun began to set I was struck-still by the beauty and it confirmed, without words, the reason an artist would choose to depict Yosemite’s cliffs, waterfalls, tourists and lodges or Monterey’s trees, water, ice plants, boats, tourists and rocks. It’s all there.
“In the end nobody knows how it's done - how art is made. It can't be explained. Optical devices are just tools. Understanding a tool doesn't explain the magic of creation. Nothing can.” -David Hockney
David Hockney’s Yosemite -on view at the Monterey Museum of Art April 25 – August 4, 2019
My name is Linda Lay and I'm an artist, a writer and a teacher.