Off the Deep End: The Swimming Pool, in Eight Artworks

What better way to embrace summer than to plunge into your favorite pool? Take your pick of eight this season, courtesy of David Hockney, Slim Aarons, Eric Zener, and more. Using an eclectic variety of techniques and influences both cultural and stylistic, these eight artists explore the idea of the pool, not just as a representation of leisurely Americana, but also as a universal theme. They invite us to dive into a world of lazy summer days, philosophical quandaries, and obligatory puns.  

David Hockney, Lithograph of Water Made of Thick and Thin Lines and Two Light Blue Washes

Hockney’s unique take on the whimsy of swimming pool leisure was a product of his migration from England to Los Angeles in 1964. Experiencing the idyllic, laid-back California lifestyle for the first time, Hockney imbued his work of this period with a playful, childlike sense of awe. Through his straightforward use of color and inclusion of squiggles and rippled lines, Hockney offers a glimpse into a facet of the American dream. He later moved back to London, living there and in Paris for most of the ’70s, before returning to L.A. in 1978 and continuing to produce pool paintings like the one pictured.  

William Betts, untitled 2:46 pm

Betts is known for his large-scale paintings of images appropriated from still captures of CCTV footage. This view of a couple in a sun-drenched pool induces the viewer into a role of detached voyeur. Betts’s work provokes questions of privacy in the modern technosphere. With the swimming pool as a backdrop for a certain degree of luxury and privilege, Betts asks us to question the mysterious, immaterial forces surrounding us. The all-seeing eye floating around the swimmers exudes the omnipotence and strangeness of an imagined out-of-body experience, obscuring the figures in the soft glow of the pool’s ripples.  

Eric Zener, Pool Diver

Zener employs thematic constraints in his work, limiting his subject matter to four subjects:  landscapes, figures on beds or tightropes, and bodies in water. His pool paintings serve to capture the beauty inherent to the physical act of swimming. Beams of light shine through pockets of bubbles, the skin of his swimmers glowing in a hazy yellow-aqua hue, and the confines of the pool are just well-defined enough to give off an air of security and enclosure. Zener has said, “...we all feel a great sense of ‘transformation’ from the world above when we are submerged in the blue water of a pool.” With this in mind, he explores swimming as an act of comfort and escape. 

Colin Chillag, Being-in-the-World as Being-With in which Being-One’s-Self is Exemplified

Conceptual portraitist Colin Chillag uses a self-aware, “unfinished” style of painting to convey a sense of memory-induced anxiety and introspective confusion. The painting’s Heideggerian title clashes ironically with seemingly trivial domestic items like the head of a pet dog or a Tecate tall can. Figures seen enjoying pool time are interrupted by discontinuations of line and color; the stark whiteness of Chillag’s deliberately crude negative space gives the scene an arctic chill and an uncanniness reminiscent of Alex Katz. Chillag allows us to ponder the dubitable accuracy of memory, while also recalling the ghosts of past swimming pools.  

Slim Aarons, Eden Roc Pool

Contrasting with the anxiety of Zener’s compositions, Slim Aarons’ photographs exhibit American decadence and luxury in its purest, most aesthetic forms. Tan bathers lie by a Miami luxury resort pool in a scene following Aarons’ maxim of exhibiting, “...attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.” The deep blue shades of the sky, gulf, and pool combine with his signature selective blurring to produce a beautifully nostalgic image.  

Julie Blackmon, Stock Tank

In Julie Blackmon’s surreal, fantastic Stock Tank, children play and float in a tiny tub of a pool, the aerial, artificially lit view producing a cinematic perspective. Each individual figure appears fully engrossed in their own worlds within the pool as others lounge outside along the picture’s margins. Blackmon’s images are saturated with rich color, reminding us of the photographer’s potential to transcend the ordinary and show us a world we can miss if we don’t look carefully.  

Lucien Samaha, Ditching Training, Breech Academy

Amidst all of these idyllic interpretations of swimming pools is a lingering reminder that swimming is not merely a fun activity but also sometimes a survival skill. Autobiographical photographer Lucien Samaha spent time at Breech Academy training as a flight attendant. This photograph shows an attendant in training “ditching” and practicing the jump, which in the real version of this scenario would entail plunging into the ocean from an airplane. The photo captures a different type of poolside daydream, in which the imagery isn’t so sunny.  

Irfan Önürmen, Imagefall no:11

While we’re still in dreamland, take a look at multimedia artist Irfan Önürmen’s Imagefall no:11, fashioned from cut pieces of tulle arranged over canvas. There’s an obvious transparency to the materials that reminds one of memories long-gone, lost experiences and scenes from the past, its fabric connoting personal history and romantic nostalgia. The anonymous, silhouetted figure in the foreground invites us to transport ourselves to the poolside, cold drink in hand.  

Charlie Ambler

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