London

Gary Hume

Whitechapel Gallery

Gary Hume appears to have entered his Midsummer Night’s Dream period. His recent paintings conjure up a world of enchanted woods haunted by evanescent spirits, where nothing is quite what it seems. His principal subjects are things that fly, hover, hang, float, swim—birds, flowers, angels, nests, reflections in running water. Here, the laws of gravity and identity are in abeyance.

Hume is by no means the first British artist to be interested in this kind of subject matter. When I interviewed him in 1995, just about the only bit of biographical information he gave me was that he takes his son to see the grave of William Blake—an artist who saw angels. In the Victorian period, fairy painting was a popular genre, with scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest often represented. They were painted with copious and hallucinatory detail, and had titles like Fairies in a Bird’s Nest and The Captive Robin. In 1997, the Royal Academy mounted an exhibition of fairy painting, which Hume must have seen.

Of course, Hume’s work has always been haunted—in the sense that the markings of his early swing-door paintings doubled as schematic faces, and one could see one’s own face reflected in the high-gloss surface. But there was a heraldic precision and a hieratic fixity to the images in that early work. If they were faces, they were ones that eyeballed you with unerring intensity. They demanded that you stand at attention before them.

In contrast, the new works drift in and out of consciousness, slipping and sliding across your field of vision. They warrant a more dispersed, even spaced-out form of scrutiny. The large works, each entitled Water Painting, 1999, comprise tangled skeins of lines that form multiple images of a naked woman. The flotsam of repeated nipples, eyes, and mouths gets strung out across the composition like sexualized water lilies. Another group, all called Nest, 1998, consists of all-over thickets of lines. You’d be hard put to say which way up these pictures ought to hangor, indeed, where any nest was located.

In Hume’s fairyland, enchantment and disenchantment coexist. These are vanitas pictures in a very precise way. Birdsong, 1998, and Blue Orchid, 1999, feature abstracted structures that are disconcertingly bony. He addresses his material as though he were making anatomical models. In Angel Fuchsia World, 1999, and Angel Brown World, 1999, the heads have a hollowed-out, skull-like quality.

Hume’s paintings are still made from uninflected slicks of bright glossy house paint, giving them a hermetically sealed, impenetrable perfection. But in the 1999 “Large Angel Head” paintings, the boundaries between colors are marked by sharp ridges of paint that would cut you if you ran your finger along them. The ridges recall the exposed casting seams that you find in some of Rodin’s sculptures, and they aggressively partition and grip the image. These pictures are Hume’s most successful new departure. In them, animate things seem to have been dismembered and buried alive.

James Hall