Judge Bryan Byun was waiting for Hockney, but some dude named Godot showed up instead.
Art. Ambition. Poppy seed cake.
What is art? Or, more precisely, what is Art—the kind of creation that gets hung in art galleries, as opposed to the kind that ends up at yard sales? Is it the thing itself? Or the person who makes it? Or the social circle that receives it?
In the documentary Waiting for Hockney, we meet Billy Pappas, a young artist from Baltimore, who spent the years between 1993-2003 working obsessively on a single pencil drawing. Pappas created this drawing—a portrait of Marilyn Monroe based on a photograph by Richard Avedon—using magnifying lenses, in order to capture Marilyn in literally microscopic detail. Using slings to support his arms (and lifting weights to strengthen his muscles), Pappas worked for eight or more hours a day for a decade, drawing Marilyn, not just hair by hair, but almost cell by cell, with an unwavering diligence that would shame a medieval monk.
Why would Pappas devote such singleminded fervor on a photorealistic portrait that could far more easily be captured (and was, of course) on film? According to the artist, an outgoing, amiable guy who is miles away from the kind of cloistered hermit one envisions, he wanted to challenge photography, to reveal something in this technique that photography could not capture, and thereby create a whole new style of art. And, being the ambitious sort, he hoped his magnum opus would be his entree into the art world.
The key to his plan, Pappas decided, was the famous artist David Hockney, who had written some papers on photography and optics that convinced Pappas that Hockney would be the one to appreciate his achievement. Waiting for Hockney, shot over two years by Julie Checkoway, a writer and professor who has worked on the This American Life radio program, tells the bittersweet story of Pappas and his quest to meet—and impress—Hockney.
The subject and cast of characters in Waiting for Hockney are so unusual that I had to do a bit of Googling to verify that this was in fact a true story, and not a mockumentary. Pappas was able to work on his drawing full time due to the patronage of Larry Link, an eccentric Baltimore architect and art lover who supported Pappas from the beginning all the way through completion of his project. Link himself probably warrants his own documentary—he's a bowtied dandy with a peculiar style straight out of a John Waters movie. (Just what is it about Baltimore that produces guys like this?)
Without giving away the ending—although I think most viewers can guess how Pappas' quest turns out without much effort—or saying too much about the drawing itself, let it suffice to say that Waiting for Hockney, and the response to Pappas' work from the art establishment, raises some pointed questions about how art becomes Art. It asks why some artists are taken seriously, their every paint smear analyzed and honored, while others are relegated to the world of "outsider" art, no matter how interesting or meaningful their work.
But the documentary also raises another question: what exactly is Checkoway's motivation in telling this story? Is this film a tribute to one talented artist's monumental passion? Or a patronizing chuckle at a clueless lunatic? Is the film on the side of Pappas, or on the side of the viewer, the audience gawking at a freakshow? Ultimately, whatever the impulse behind this documentary, it's a fascinating spectacle that's worth a watch to any art lover.
Waiting for Hockney is presented on DVD with clean, pleasing video and a solid stereo audio track. Unfortunately, it's a bare bones disc, without any extra features.
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