Browser Art from the Comfort of Home

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

David Hockney, "A Bigger Splash," 1967.

Around 1970, painter David Hockney was in London feeling listless. Or at least he was according to Jack Hazan’s 1974 documentary, A Bigger Splash, which portrays Hockney as a lovesick, indecisive genius. The original NYTimes review of Hazan’s film called it “unforgivably solemn, something that Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey would never have allowed.” And it is solemn, sort of bathed in angsty mysteriousness and bogged down by its violin-heavy soundtrack. But a few scenes manage to take themselves seriously, and feel easy and honest at the same time. At one point, Hockney is laying in a dimly lit, orange-ish room beside Celia Birtwell, a designer and intermittent muse, speaking limply about a “cure”—a cure, the film suggests, from his distress over trouble with lover Peter Schlesinger, but also just a cure in general.

Says Hockney, “That’s what I should do. I should go for a cure to California. Treat it like a spa. Yeah. But what can we drink?” He continues, “I’m always going back to the same places. I find myself always going to California. . .  I haven’t been to some place really different for a long time. I mean other than Japan.”

“You went to Corsica,” points out Celia.

“It wasn’t that different. And going back to California to work, I don’t know. There’s something about it that’s off-putting, and then there’s something about it that’s quite exciting. I suspect that in the four years since I left, it’s changed probably.” That it had changed since Hockney left seems fairly certain—L.A.’s good at change, which in part drew Hockney to the city back in ’63 (“You are the painter of Southern California now,” a friend tells him, and only a place in flux can have a transplant for its painter). “I don’t suppose I’ll ever stay,” he muses. “Even when I liked it, I never felt like staying.” Celia agrees, roughing his hair. “No, I think that fantasy’s all burnt out,” she says.

“I don’t know. I’m not so sure. I wish I was convinced it was all burnt out,” replies Hockney. A few scenes later, he’s back painting clear blue California pools, once again surrounded by Palm Trees.

Florian Maier-Aichen, left, "Untitled," 2007, courtesy Blum & Poe; right, "The Best General View," courtesy Gagosian.

What I am surrounded by right now is sofa cushions, and I have Hazan’s Hockney film playing in a small window in the bottom left corner of my screen while I art-view. I’m browsing the VIP Art Fair, the first online fair of it’s kind, the first “to mobilize the collective force of the world’s leading contemporary art galleries with the unlimited reach of the Internet,” according to its press release. Artnet claims VIP creates “the same initial disorientation” one feels at any other art fair, only, this time, you can feel it while sitting on your sofa.

Perhaps because I am thinking of Hockney’s musings on California’s push and pull, or because I need a familiar foothold, I am experiencing a weird surge of regionalism, which seems counter intuitive at an online fair. Finding L.A. at VIP is actually a harder task than you’d expect, however, as only three of the included galleries are actually from here—David Kordansky, Susan Vielmetter Projects and Blum & Poe. L & M doesn’t count because it only arrived in L.A.  this year and has been in N.Y. for going on two decades, and nothing about Gagosian is specific to its Beverly Hills space.

Of course, it doesn’t take an L.A. gallery to show L.A. artists, and Ingrid Calame, Sharon Lockhart, Chris Burden, and Walead Beshty, among others, make appearances in virtual booths of International and East Coast galleries. But it’s a certain kind of artist that works in this sort of on-screen environment.

David Hockney, a self-portrait, still life, and summer dawn, made with the iPhone Brushes application, 2009.

Critic-poet Eileen Myles “instantly coined a phrase” upon seeing the 2006 Wolfgang Tillmans show at the Hammer Museum. She called it “browser art”, “which is to simply render how [a person] moves through the world, . . .  what an eye might alight on, what kind of people do we like to look at.” This sort of approach works well in the online context and Tillmans turns out to be decently represented here (he has five works on view at VIP, and only a few–like Louise Bourgeois–have more); however, in my search for L.A. artists, I find two whose browser-window appeal differs slightly from Tillmans’ but still seems on-spot.

The first is Florian Maier-Aichen, the German-born photographer who makes large format, seductive panoramas and who might, upon first glance, seem more performer than browser. But his oversaturated, sweeping views evidence an implicit understanding of how color works in digitally-savvy brains, and how simple shifts in hue can grab you and pull you back into sublime fantasies that became mundane when aerial views became second nature. He has a blue cityscape/horizon scene in Blum & Poe’s booth that looks like one still, perfectly confined special effect. The other is Karl Haendel, whose Cause and Prevention of Old Age Group (2010), shown by Tel Aviv’s Sommer Contemporary, acts as free association in pencil on paper. Film still with man (Gary Cooper) in long black vest pointing gun, next to long black industrial silhouettes, next to sea of bullets, next to white on black criss-crossed clippings: “Crossing Guard Is Charged,” Officials are Unable,” “Friend Skittish in Center Aisle.” Again, you can read the image across quickly, like stream of consciousness or—and I did this repeatedly—zoom in real close then scroll across, getting lost in the progression of details.

Years after he made a name as “painter of California,” David Hockney discovered the iPhone. He started using the brush app to make quick drawings (though he’d often spend hours strategizing before each) with an intuitive approach to color as immediate as Maier-Aichen’s, though a free associative quality less refined than Haendel’s. He told friend and biographer Lawrence Weschler, “the images always look better on the screen than on the page. After all, this is a medium of pure light, not ink or pigment, if anything more akin to a stained glass window than an illustration on paper.” He found “something, finally, very intimate about the whole process.”  I guess that can be said about the best work to see at VIP: it has a specific sort of intimacy when experienced onscreen. But I’m pretty sure Google image could have told us that.