David Hockney: I draw, I do

Ireland's first exhibition of the influential artist's work is a fascinating insight into his life-long consistency and passion for getting the world down on paper

The first thing you see when you walk into the Tall Gallery at the MAC, the site of this first David Hockney exhibition on the island of Ireland, is his 1989 print: 'Regional College of Art.' It’s a fantastic image: full of solid, thick lines: texture and grit.

The building is solid, immutable and full of the grimy industrial north, with its tweedy cross-hatching and dark, dank shadow. Yet the rooms inside the building, where the students work, are light and airy, limpid fishbowls full of vases and stuffed tigers and where a speccy Herbert (Hockney himself, no doubt) draws a nude – a world away from the stooped blackened figure shifting slag on the forecourt. Needless to say in Bradford it is raining.

This is Hockney the artist looking back on his formative days from the vantage point of international success. In a sympathetically put together exhibition what we see next is his actual work from that time – it is the 1950s in the North. 'Bolton Junction' is the name of two paintings from 1956. The paint is applied with a thick impasto of muted olives, dove greys and powder blues against a geometric back-drop torn up by spindly blackened trees – a landscape of ruined umbrellas. Figures meet: shabby gents in overcoats, a pug nosed child in too short shorts. They fit the landscape: post-industrial and post-bellum, a dingy dusk-world without sun to crack the clouds.

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Hockney’s 'Rake’s Progress' series is 'a graphic tale comprising 16 etchings', twice as many as the Hogarth series that they’re based on. Undertaken after Hockney had visited the United States for the first time, we see here (they were produced between 1961 and 1963) the first flowering of his association with pop art.

His figures are fluid wraiths, bubbling like lava lamps. Buildings wobble and sway, iconic skyscrapers appear. In 'The Arrival' the Rake appears to be floating down from his plane in a single fluid movement, the black scribbled mass of the earth rising up irresistibly to meet him.

In 'The Gospel' a torpedo breasted gospel singer flings her halo into the air, her chorus of hallelujas literally creating the red heavens above. A peevish Rake sits down among the dead men, their bodies black and empty, around their necks noose-like ties proclaiming 'God is love'. What follows is unambiguous cruising, a loveless marriage to an old maid, a descent into alcoholism and finally, inevitably Bedlam.

'Disintegration' sees the Rake’s brain leave his body in a cloud of pink mist, while his nose snaps off and his head detaches from his shoulders, and all of this in front of a billboard advertising whiskey. The picture has everything: stark, beautiful imagery, a portrait of an advert while simultaneously describing an advert, a tremendous graphic sense and extraordinary draughtsmanship.

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There is an entire room dedicated to portraits of family and friends. This is a mainstay of Hockney’s career, he has always drawn those closest to him; his restless pencil never lets up. The early drawings, pale and fragile, ghosted with age, depict his family and neighbours, and are delicate and charming.

After these we move into the more worldly and expansive lithographs of the '70s. 'Christopher and Dan' from 1976, look particularly louche, lounging in their dressing gowns. It could be after Holbein: a couple of wealthy and urbane merchants who know how to get their hands on the green stuff.

Taking us up to date are the inkjet-printed computer drawings of his friends in all their brash, gaudy glory – all reds, pinks and oranges. There is an old cross-hatched quality to the faces that links it to some of his earliest work, and this works in marked contrast to the large unbroken vistas of colour that make up the figure’s environments and even their clothes.

'Le Plongeur' (1978) is what most people would expect to see at a Hockney exhibition: a painting of a young man jumping into a swimming pool. But look again: it’s not a painting at all but an image built up with pulped paper. It lends it a hazy, fuzzy-felt quality, quite removed from his pristine painterliness. It feels more lively too, more vivid, more dappled with light. His extraordinary eye for colour remains, however: the purple shadow beneath the diving board is beautiful; the ripples of green snaking through the picture are perfect compliments to the water’s aquamarine.

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My favourite is his series of etchings 'The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear' (1969-70), based on the Grimm Brother’s folktale. They are just beautiful drawings; his delicacy and precision is extraordinary. There’s something so richly exciting about these prints: the hieroglyphic modelling of the figures, their passivity, the monolithic shrouds, the exquisite mastery of so many techniques. And he’s even thrown in a reference to missing Lon Chaney horror film London After Midnight. It’s like he’s drawn them just for me!

I draw, I do is a fascinating insight into Hockney’s consistency as a draughtsman. He has explored endless styles and media, and continued to be interested, pushing into new ways of seeing, trying to extract what he can, what works for him, out of his environment. But mostly this is an exhibition of a man’s life-long passion for looking at the world and getting it down on paper.

David Hockney: I draw, I do is now open at the MAC, Belfast and runs until Sunday, October 16. Book tickets at www.themaclive.com/art. Enter our competition to win a prize package of tickets, a curated tour and exclusive exhibition merchandise here.