New York

Gary Hume

Matthew Marks Gallery

Gary Hume’s early work took the form of a series of abstractions based on a type of double door familiar to those who have worked in restaurants or walked the corridors of Britain’s dysfunctional public service buildings—the kind that swing open from either side and from either direction. Featuring little more than a rectangular push plate and a round window, the doors, like the paintings, suggest the possibility of passage through an institutionalized—and increasingly bankrupt—space.

Breaking with the formal constraints of the door series, Hume’s recent work nonetheless retains that high-gloss sheen that thwarts the gaze in his paintings as much as it does traces of wear on institutional fixtures. A curious combination of deadness and vibrancy, the current colors mix flesh tones for the elderly with the forced gaiety of coffee-shop enamels, suggesting a kind of slow drift of Matissean color away from its mooring in the bucolic landscapes of the Côte d’Azur toward the pastel hues of suburban interiors. The result is a sort of queasily seductive surface. Passages of black feature in all the works but one. Sometimes dominating the picture plane as in the silhouetted figures that appear in Manly (all works 1994) and the diptych Love Loves Unlovable and at other times as punctuation to loosely biomorphic forms that, over time, become readable as Iris, Puppy Dog, or Polar Bear. Rather than isolating color to suggest the possibility of full saturation, the passages of black force the tonal uniformity of the colored grounds into a dilute, if acidic sort of truce—the sort of unstable equilibrium that is played out in the pictorial space of the paintings themselves.

Many of the formal symmetries and metaphors that marked the double-door series have been reinvented here. In these works, the generic body suggested by the standardized apertures and push plates of the doors comes up for air, though it never quite breaks the picture plane, as if repressed by the surface tension of the paint. Begging for it consists of a pared-down figure who is either praying or, as the title might suggest, soliciting a sexual favor. The masses of colors—crinoline hues favored by the Queen Mother for public appearances—form the low-relief plates that characterize the picture plane except where it wells up when they collide, as if under pressure from invisible seismic forces. Indeed much of the strength of the latest work comes from this underground topography: the barely concealed evidence of the previous practices from which these works have emerged. Glossed over with a coat of enamel, this subterranean activity speaks of the contingencies that separate success from failure and acceptance from rejection.

These paintings dare to walk the old high-wire between form and content without the safety net of irony. Hume pushes through the portals of his earlier work, but these doors are spring-loaded, and to linger here or to mistime one’s passage through them is to risk a return to closure and an unexpected blow to the back of the head.

Neville Wakefield