I was somewhat nonplussed by the Royal Academy’s Jasper Johns exhibition, which ends this weekend. His renowned work is undoubtedly pleasing. Partly this a function of his portrayal of the familiar – flags, numbers, targets – which he renders unfamiliar through multiple repetitions and subtle variations. But more, it’s to do with how his repetition strips out meaning and defies interpretation. So you’re drawn into his artistry: the texture of his paintings of the flags, the attractive form of his numbers.
David Hockney’s Royal Academy exhibition, 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life, is a welcome respite from the bewilderment and despondency of Brexit-Britain.
The exhibition consists of a series of portraits that Hockney began on returning to Los Angeles after the untimely death of one of his studio assistants. In his grief, he lost his purpose and motivation. The series charts, therefore, his turning back to life and a gradual healing. The first portrait is of another of his studio staff, head down in anguish. He appears again towards the end of the series – two years later – more open, engaged and accepting. The series as a whole has a similar trajectory. Hockney begins with busyness and disharmony in the backgrounds but these give way to calmer backdrops, the better to study the people before him.
Gerhard Richter’s portraits are confusing. He paints from photographs – some taken from family albums, others found in newspapers and magazines – and strips away the context that provides meaning. He wants to confound interpretation. Yet time and again the viewer is drawn back to the original context – the story behind the picture. For me, it is this tension between the banal surface and the complex reality beneath that makes his work interesting. An exhibition of 35 of his works at the National Portrait Gallery tells us something about the importance of stories in how we make sense of the world.
Richter’s subjects at first glance are beguilingly mundane: a woman with an umbrella; a young girl with a baby boy. The detail is blurred away and the images seem like familiar, suburban scenes – reassuring representations of a world we think we know.
On closer inspection one realises that the woman with umbrella is Jackie Kennedy and the picture portrays her in mourning for her husband. The girl and baby boy turn out to be Richter’s Aunt Marianne and Richter himself as an infant. While the painting was made in 1965 it is from a family image taken before the war. Aunt Marianne had had a psychiatric disorder and had been murdered by the Nazis.
Roni Horn is a contemporary artist who chips away at our certainties and presents a world which seems familiar yet turns out to be quite elusive. It’s an experience to be commended to anyone who presumes to lead people or to understand the environment with which they are engaged.
An exhibition of her work is at Tate Modern. It consists largely of sculpture and photography. There is a great deal of repetition and variation on a theme and it’s easy to view the work quickly and think you have grasped it. But it gets under your skin and eventually challenges your preconceptions, encouraging you to question perception itself.