Can’t See the Wood for the Hockneys

Last weekend I went with B. to see the David Hockney show, ‘A Bigger Picture’, at the Royal Academy. It was everything it was billed to be except it was busier and brighter. Busier (with people) meant ludicrous in parts, with surround-sound coughs and idiocies, which can later be the stuff of comedy, or slaughter. Brighter (with paint), on the other hand, won out, and meant remembering anew with tummy-flips and pop-eyed swallowing that David Hockney is quite the grandest old bugger for sheer painty fun.

Growing up I knew I wanted to be an artist (‘to make art full time’, as I would say then, a similar sentiment made almost thirty years on at the other book-end of a long and winding phase), to the extent that no thought was given to anything other than going to art college when I left school. So much for the what and the where. The why was David Hockney.

D.H. at eighteen. Photo, Douglas Bolton.
In a Yorkshire Post article, Jan 2012, an ex-art teacher of a young Hockney is quoted: “I’m sorry to say that what David does now is rubbish.” Good old Yorkshire.

I was around sixteen when I got my first really good dose of David Hockney, and was straightaway thrown into something of a quiver, not by the free willies and the freer California campery, but by the sudden and unexpected splash of this painter with a talent for paintings bouncing and leaping and passionate with play. Some of them – deep breaths – had words in them.

David Hockney painted words into pictures; the writing was part of his painting, which was new to me because up until then encountered words in pictures had either been of the collage-y kind, as in the Cubists’ newspapers, or Schwitter’s thing for advertising trouvées1; or else of Magritte and Duchamp’s instructive labels: oh, and the more obvious kinda-contemporaries then of Pop Art’s Warhol, Blake and Lichenstein, whose words were their faithful satires. With David Hockney, the phrases were painterly, urgent and alive, with poem-and-song-robbed phrases that bumped the edges, and edges of figures, like graffiti bunching up on toilet doors.

David Hockney was the why I was ready to love that art college time; a year under the smoke-shined eyes of Patrick Oliver, a man so carbonated with stories and wit that his languid height and hair would suddenly buckle and jerk whenever a brush-stroke or door-wedge displaced a remembering bubble; and why in jittery awe of my so-funny year-mates – of Gaby, Wayne, David, Peter, Alan – I was able to find more of what I’d just found. Art that hums with under-jokes whose references I got. Art that is simply, only, fantastically, a more efficient, more beautiful, more bonkers articulation of what I already know or already feel, what I already recall or imagine; art that illuminates my stock within, not expands it or morphs it like badly-stretched paint, or, for that matter, with badly-stretched paint.3

When I moved on to a Fine Art degree, I quickly received some other thinking, that, funnily, the joke wasn’t art anymore: ‘There are subjects’, said the still-there professor, ‘not suited to serious painting’. 4 I took down my studies of obscene bears and spent four hammering years instead with the creeping trend of ‘installation art’, coming back to painting so much later, when, on a significant birthday, B. presented me with the means to do so.

In the crowded weekend galleries of the R.A., at ‘A Bigger Picture’, I felt connected again to the why of my art from long ago. Early in the show, at the rear of the second room, once you’re over the Grand Canyon, is a smaller large work, Nichols Canyon, from 1980. It looks like it’s more recent, like one of the iPad works, even, and I guess that’s its contextual point. In its centre is a solid circle of red (a Royal Academy in-joke on Turner’s trickster daub?), and next to it the legend on the snaking tarmac, ‘Nichols Cyn Rd’. He’s painted the road’s name onto the painting, directions for my unexpected memory of the day.

David Hockney RA, 'Nichols Canyon', 1980.
Acrylic on canvas. 213.4 x 152.4 cm. Private collection. ©David Hockney.

Nothing David Hockney creates will be to me, nor will need to be, a thing apart from David Hockney; more specifically, the David Hockney whose painterly words on canvas were as naughty and sense-making as are his thousand astonishing trees; as naughty and sense-making as the artist I wanted to be. I can’t see the wood for the Hockneys, and, boy, that’s a wonderful thing.

There are as many reviews as trees to be read of the show, but this isn’t one. This is just a memory of the past, present, future of my art.



1  Fabulously I came across one of Kurt’s collages including the clipped words ‘Stephen Mitchell’, who much later I understood was a big shot in Glasgow smoking and reading circles, and whose junk-shopped tins I now collect. Naturally I can’t track down the flaming assemblage when I need it.

2  We Two Boys Together Clinging, 1961. David Hockney tells a lovely related thing of his art-school crush on the (actually) youthful Cliff Richard, having a newspaper clipping in his studio, relating a coastal rescue, with the headline: ‘TWO BOYS CLING TO CLIFF ALL NIGHT’. (David Hockney by David Hockney, Thames and Hudson, 1976, p.68.)

3  The art college in Leeds then was, and may still be, though long-since relocated, a beauty. As Jacob Kramer Art College, it shared its walls with the Civic Theatre, so conjoined that it was possible via a mad and tilting set of corridors, punctuated by stout but unlocked doors, to slip from a studio store room right through to the theatre’s backstage. To this day I have occasional dreams about that passageway, a real and grand version of the extra-room dream. Patrick Oliver taught there; a striking and brilliant man, about whom more can be read here. On the subject of badly stretched paint, Patrick would often re-tell an assessment of Dali’s work, where the critique was simply ‘ooh, the poor paint!’

Leeds College of Art & Design, Jacob Kramer Art College, Image from

4  Tutoring too, degree-wise, was the also-still-there Marc Camille Chaimowicz, whose wallpaper of pearls and cherubs sees us every night to sleep, and who, though I haven’t spoken with him since January 1st 1991, makes me smile still because he always seemed to know what I was looking for.

© Copyright, Steve Mitchell and Fisher Lane, 2012

Header image, Apple and Fir (detail) SM 1984

About Stevie Mitchell

I come from a long line of cartoons and beer. I was once peed on by a tiger. Hoping the resultant super-powers are yet to come, cos if these are they, then, grrrr....
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7 Responses to Can’t See the Wood for the Hockneys

  1. As a fellow Hockney fan (and Yorkshire person!) I was also hit by the Hockney bug as a teen during my Art A Level. Still a fan today….

  2. helenstalker says:

    A great image of Hockney as a teenager. I’d love to use it in an exhibition at the Whitworth – can you let me know where you found it so I can approach the owner?
    Many thanks

    • Hi Helen,
      the photo is (as referenced) by Douglas Bolton, and is from the text I reference in the footnotes. I should add that it also details: ‘Reproduced by courtesy of Kenneth Gose’.
      Source: David Hockney by David Hockney, Thames and Hudson, 1976 (Reprinted 1982, Edited by Nikos Stangos)
      Obviously if I find I’m in breach of copyright here I’ll take it down.
      Best Wishes, Steve

  3. I’m Patrick Oliver’s daughter, thanks for sharing. I read posts about him with hackles raised; because there seems to be no balance, just fawning sycophants or damning critics. Your post made me smile.
    When my son (now 25) tore the world’s first faxed Hockney at Salt’s Mill and we were chased out by the curate, I was appalled: I told Dad (proud Granddad) and he laughed and said “he shows good taste”.
    My son was about 20 months…..

    • Hi Cait – thanks for the note. I was thinking of Patrick recently on the sad loss of Peter O’Toole… there was a news report about him which featured Dame Margot Fontayne, and I remembered one of Patrick’s under-his-breath monologues at Jacob Kramer, something about the dancer and how he and Peter always called her ‘Mrs Margaret Fountain’ – and he said it so cattily, which was funny, and something that really stuck with me.

    • Candia says:

      I studied for about two terms on an adults’ course (one evening) with your father. I loved the first half where he talked and influenced our ways of seeing. I had young kids and it was my sanity night. Now, 30 odd years later, I am taking up my chalks and brushes again. Have always appreciated his insights.

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