PRINT May 1999


Gary Hume has created a New Look for painting with the satin-gloved fist of a militant. “New Look” capitalized, because of its contagious fashionability: The devotional appeal of his nullified subjects, from the quizzical doors of the late ’80s and early ’90s to the more recent Pop-ish figures and slivers of freeze-framed landscape, has made its inexorable way westward from London to Los Angeles, which at present is witnessing a burgeoning painting style whose abstracted attitude and offhand panache seem indebted to Hume’s nacreous palette and freedom with regard to subject.

I say “satin” rather than the usual velvet, because of the chill gloss of the Humean surface. The all-but-abstract paintings of doors—generic, mute portals—were so shiny you could see yourself coming and going in them. To the mildly depressed New York art sector, circa 1992, they looked like just what the doctor ordered—color therapy, a cleansing of the palette, new blood—and they came on like cheeky ripostes, twenty years ex post facto but still welcome, to Brice Marden’s waxy, matte, monochrome paintings of the late ’60s, which also had a young, sexy vibe and a privately conceived template of human scale.

Hume’s reflective doors were an invitation au voyage—whether to a pink-and-purple love-in or to an emergency room out of A Clockwork Orange was up to you. Ineffably, they seemed naughty, perhaps secretly funny-mean in the Martin Amis vein, with their instant-chic housepaint flesh tones and suave puns on abstraction, not to mention their angry-young-mall titles, like Long Distance Run Around 24 Hours, 1991, More Fucking Values, 1991, and My Guernica, 1992.

But Hume did not elect to be the Master of the Swinging Doors. In 1992, just as they were making their debut in New York, he moved on, occasionally to return to them over time. Immediately thereafter followed a period, lasting about a year in the artist’s life, that was much romanticized in the British press: Hume, on his own and turning thirty, with a small child to support, experienced an artistic crisis and was poor again—to use a word rarely uttered in the States, even among struggling young artists, where it is widely considered to be a jinx. In the London of the post-Thatcher years, however, it appears to have been considered a badge of honor, as well as an obstacle to overcome (and which, once overcome, would seem to vindicate the flintiness of “the oppressor” along with the “grit” of the oppressed). Between 1992 and 1994, in any event, Hume accomplished a lot. For one thing, he regressed, in time-honored English fashion, producing his rude anti-classic, Me as King Cnut, a performance video, in which the artist-as-king-as-jester, a fat spliff stuck in his mouth, gesticulates and splutters in a bathtub full of water: This viewer was reminded of the 1966 film Morgan!, wherein the Russian Revolution-obsessed hero retreats to a gorilla suit for much of the duration. It was nevertheless during this period that Hume, in going Ubu, accomplished his first little revolution in content.

The artist had spent some months in Rome in 1991, and, as if Candide in the Eternal City, he was impressed by the Fascist-era statuary posturing along the banks of the Tiber. By the end of ’93 he had produced Hero, a glossy black painting whose sharply incised lines limn the contours of one of those authoritarian Roman figures. Fascism’s fascination, leavened with flashes of ’60s Cinecittà, proved to be a rich source of ore for Hume over the next couple of years. He spun the Italian theme quite loosely, giving issue to a surprisingly varied number of paintings that can be counted among his masterworks to date—Love Love’s Unlovable, 1994, his perverse take on “abjection” in art in the form of a twin-paneled painting whose brocaded atmosphere enshrouds the statue-heroes like a lurid Roman sunset out of late Visconti; and Begging for It, 1994, with its nasty double entendre, colors that recall Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini’s 1965 Technicolor tale of an Italian bourgeois housewife sex-starved into sublimity, and that elegantly prayerful silhouette, reminiscent of Vatican-approved religious art of the ’50s and ’60s, perhaps by the modernist Manzu.

But Italy has no monopoly on carny glamour and subversive popular allure—British specialties since at least 1966, when Mick Jagger donned his first Tommy Nutter suit. At home in London, Hume was surfing the English channels, painting friends (Cerith, 1997) with vaudevillian panache and coming up with “portrait” subjects such as Tony Blackburn, 1993, of the blustering British radio personality as a messy, matte black clover against a neat black shiny orb; and Patsy Kensit, 1994, of the latter-day dollybird and star of Absolute Beginners, a postcamp classic and milestone film for Hume, looking something like a daydream by Yardley.

The pictorial idioms of contemporary childhood were also making claims on Hume’s attention—indeed, this opus might yet yield an epic of embattled fatherhood, or an ode to the child within. In paintings such as the faceless Adult, 1994, nocturnal Baby, 1994-95, or, to enter his well-populated animal realm, The Polar Bear, 1994, electrified in its own pink abjection, and Fear, 1996—a big rabbit-in-the-headlights, in pat-the-bunny colors—the artist appears to have sublimated some of the terribilità of the Fascist figures into visual lullabies that are not very reassuring at all.

It is landscape, however, ahead of portraiture, that is the sine qua non for British painters. In a land where Flower Power quickly gives way to horticultural society, Hume had already done some gardening by this time, in any number of paintings in which vegetation threatens to encroach. It was, however, with the unveiling of a thirty-six-foot-long, cocoa-and-lilac painting entitled My Aunt and I Agree, 1995, that Hume’s status as a contender in that field was established, and on a scale that suggested an American-style, bigger-is-better picaresque, by then synonymous with the official mood of the New Britain.

Originally intended for a local Conran’s Habitat (the fashionable home-furnishing chain), My Aunt and I Agree is without doubt a great, “off” painting, a jagged slice of nature—palmy foliage in a balmy haze—in early-’70s suntan-lotion-tube colors, framed by the tanned and elongated fingers of an otherwise unseen human presence. It is a slice of landscape as it might have been glimpsed from a cafe table somewhere by the sea, through hands threatening to obscure the view entirely. But a thirty-six-foot-long landscape it is, nevertheless.

Landscape of a curious type has been making its presence felt in Hume’s studio ever since. There was a buzz in London a few months ago, for instance, concerning a four-panel suite of big, quasi-abstract paintings that the artist created for temporary display in the lobby of the recently rebuilt Sadler’s Wells theater. Bird Point I, 1998, is a Smarties-colored sinfonietta: Crystalline shapes like fractals—also like broken wafers, abstract stained glass, and the Johnsian fake-flagstone motif—made for a sort of cloisonné pattern, which is a good metaphor, incidentally, for Hume’s painstaking process as a whole (although the artists’s subjects may appear offhand or glibly fashionable at times, his paintings are realized with utmost precision and labor-intensity, with each outlined area painted in with a tiny brush to ensure an unbroken finish). These irregular shapes at first look abstract, but they gradually seem to coalesce into a structured image suggesting an open-air habitat of some kind: the sky from within a tree, from the point of view of a bird on a branch?

A bird persona, reminiscent of Max Ernst’s Loplop or Magritte’s urban pigeon but with far less iconic presence, has indeed infiltrated many of Hume's recent paintings: Nest II, 1998, with its nursery pinks and blues and its looming mother-dove figure, and Pink Bird, 1998, more an homage to orientalism and the Aesthetic Movement, in dusky rose and sultry umber, with a single, bird-beckoning aubergine twig. But with or without bird images, Hume’s odd vantages evoke a certain avian piquance, the hopping rhythm of sparrows and fools. This is the artist’s unique perspective—his special perch, if you like: a view of the world from below, through the celestial illumination of a studio skylight in East London.

Visitors to Venice this summer will be able to see Hume’s work enshrined in the British Pavilion at the Biennale, no doubt in such a way as to suggest a decade’s retrospective. It thus seems fitting for a moment to address the artist’s contribution to recent painting. Hume is not necessarily the best young painter around, nor did he alone achieve the etherized, abstracted look in painting and other mediums (not to mention fashion) that we have begun to recognize as our own fin-de-siècle period style. In fact, Hume’s affinities would appear to span at least three decades in art, and at least as many generations, to include such obvious precedents as Alex Katz, in America; and in Britain, Patrick Caulfield (and to a lesser degree Richard Smith), whose progression of coolly chromatic, Pop-inflected, stylized subjects together form a veritable keynote to this recent body of work. All three painters have been the subject of renewed or belated attention in London of late.

Work by Imi Knoebel suggests another relevant precedent: Paintings from the ’70s by the German Pop-Minimalist——his many “portraits,” for example, of Grace Kelly—are not only abstract in appearance but are realized with a glossy sheen like lamination, in cosmetics colors. (Knoebel was once included in a group show that also featured Hume, “Unbound: Possibilities in Painting,” at the Hayward Gallery in 1997, which proposed a savvy index of painterly connections along these lines. Jonathan Lasker, for instance, was also included, as was Hume’s friend and contemporary Fiona Rae.) Mary Heilmann’s abstracted landscapes in high-gloss housepaint colors suggest another strong affinity. And in Los Angeles, young painters such as Ingrid Callame, Monique Prieto and, especially, Laura Owens—whose forty-foot-long, untitled, site-specific painting in Chicago last fall was a kissing cousin to My Aunt and I Agree—appear to have taken Hume’s example as their own point of departure toward the mongrel realm of the semi-abstract.

There are other, perhaps less obvious Humean resonances as well. His linear, veiled female figures—the model Pauline, most notably, in her ’70s light show of varied chromatic effects—seem related to David Salle’s smoking, pouting, phoning girls from around 1980. In February, Hume was working on four huge “Paulines” (one of which will be shown in Venice), whose large scale and fretted compositions distinctly recall Salle’s “Zeitgeist” paintings of 1982 made for the eponymous show with the epochal theme at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin.

Hume’s paintings, too, with their atmosphere of high style and inaccessible emotion, invite viewers to project upon them. Light from above, Hume has said, such as that in his studio, allows for a “global” rather than a “terrestrial” view, which may to some extent explain the broad, ecumenical tone of many of his recent works, with their doves reminiscent of Braque’s late paintings and their candy-colored UNESCO skies. They too seem to be cinematic and graphic rather than theatrical in their mode of address: flat, remote, “art directed” in their affect, chromatically in stride with fashion, which in this post-Warholian era is of course no longer the enemy of art. That said, there remains the matter of what Hume’s work is about. Despite the flirtation with abstraction, he appears at heart a figurative artist. Only he often seems to play a game of hide-and-seek with the notion of subject: Is he the frightened bunny rabbit caught in the glare? Or a noncommittal bird figure hopping from branch to branch? Hume’s most arresting new painting suggests something of a departure, a sudden zooming-in. Messiah, 1998, is a large, closeup, formal portrait in snapshot style, of a beaming, crawling toddler—an emphatically ordinary and contemporary little boy, whose ordinary-little-boy clothes, rendered with great graphic brio, resemble those the painter himself wears while at work. Perhaps it’s the second coming of Haring’s “radiant child,” now enjoying the miraculous benefits of a sterling halo.