It is Los Angeles. Probably 80 degrees outside, nothing much going on (and no one seems actually to work around here) so what better thing to do than going for a swim? David Hockney, A Bigger Splash, is a snapshot of one of these ordinary Californian days. His canvas works like a window; an aperture to a scene that we arrived a few seconds too late. Who is the diver in the pool is the 1 million dollar question. Its colors don’t give us any hint — on the contrary: they add to the banality of the image. An empty chair, closed doors modernist suburban house, two typical palm trees and a splash. The diving board juts out of the margin into the painting’s foreground — its positioning coming at a diagonal out of the corner — giving perspective as well as cutting across the predominantly horizontals. The yellow makes the diving board stands out dramatically against the turquoise water of the pool, echoed in the intense turquoise of the sky. Hockney has explained: ‘When you photograph a splash, you’re freezing a moment and it becomes something else. I realize that a splash could never be seen this way in real life, it happens too quickly. And I was amused by this, so I painted it in a very, very slow way.’ Overall, it seems like, if it weren’t for that stir in the water, disrupting the calm, nothing would have moved for days.
Strand is a semi-abstract painting of another seemingly common subject (a beach full of holiday-makers), drawn from the German media, made by Sigmar Polke in 1966. With its polka dots technique, Polke seems to question — and, at the same time, mock — the validity of media-spread images. He magnifies, distorts and reverts black with white dots that, in newspapers, are close to seamless. This picture, like Hockney’s, uses the banality of everyday scenes to raise questions. Strand is not about what the people are doing, and how is the weather on that particular day: he creates a distance between the subject matter and the viewer. While many ‘nature scenes’ transport us to a new reality (the way we feel ‘inside’ one of Monet’s garden scenes when we stand in front of it), Polke puts an extra layer, blurs the window, and make sure that we don’t connect with what is happening at that beach. The closer you get to the image, the less you see the action. This deliberate upsetting of the clarity and stability of the picture, unlike Andy Warhol or Lichtenstein, who celebrated the mass media, elevating its imagery and means of reproduction to the status and the realm of ‘high art,’ Polke’s work is more of a critique. It is cynical.
When talking about polka dots and Pop art, inevitably — and almost instantly — Kusama comes to mind. Her obsessive repetition of the pattern in some different mediums (canvas, installations, clothes, pumpkins) made her work universally recognizable. One of her installations, Infinity Mirror Room — Phalli’s Field (Floor Show), done in 1965, is a tiny squared space, covered with mirrors and, yes, red dots. The compulsiveness is said to be Kusama’s means of dealing with the hallucinations that began tormenting her as a child — but what does that do to the viewer? A claustrophobic, mirror-lined hallway leads into a massive room, whose four walls have been filled with several mirrors, set amidst dozens of textile bean bags. These amorphous objects that cover many of Kusama’s works recall tumors; a strange mass that doesn’t belong in that space. That is until we step in that area. Suddenly, we turn into tumors; we are the ones that don’t belong. Even if the room is covered with reflections of ourselves, in a matter of seconds, we begin to feel uncomfortable, and much like an outsider. Kusama’s works are the world within a world — and if, in some way, the artist doesn’t quite ‘fit in’ in our world, she makes us feel like we are not a part of her world.
Even though Hockney, Polke, and Kusama use very distinct techniques in their pieces, the three works have one thing in common: they shut the viewer off. In Hockney, that is made clear by the splash: he doesn’t allow us to witness the action, just the nanoseconds after it — and emphasize that by freezing an action that otherwise could not be grasped. Polke barely lets us see anything. He blurs and distorts his dots to make the scene almost abstract. He doesn’t want us to connect with the beach-goers, and make us purposely feel left out. Finally, Kusama, even with her room filled with mirrors, finds a way to shut off the viewer — with irony: nevermind that it is an odd room filled with polka dots, bean bags, floor to ceiling. It is a perfect, closed, world — and all of a sudden the strange element in it is us. We, the viewers, are the ones that stand out.