Gary Hume

“American Tan,” the title of this large exhibition of paintings, drawings, and sculptures, suggests that sickly orange-caramel hue of cheap hosiery that gives a woman’s skin a sort of nylon veneer. Such off colors—with nauseating names like “warm salmon” or “minty cream”—are the decorator shades that Hume favors for his large, flat paintings with details drawn in relief. In general, the artist chooses undemanding subject matter: baby birds, flowers, celebrities. Here it’s American cheerleaders, fragmented and abstracted into random legs, arms, crotches, midriffs. They can be turned upside down or sideways, like the fluid limbs of American Tan VII (Gloss), 2006–2007, or read straightforwardly, as with American Tan XXII (Gloss), 2006–2007, in which a pretty girl reaches upward, stretching her cropped sweater to teasing heights. There are few heads or hands, as if the latter had been replaced by strange plantlike pom-poms, somehow reminiscent of bound feet—female extremities “beautified” by being rendered weightless and useless. These perfect if fragmented figures reflect the beauty industry’s own shattering of the female body into targets for myriad beauty products and exercises that reduce us to a constellation of disconnected (if treatable) “problems.”

The success of Hume’s paintings is not matched, however, in his foray into the third dimension. The artist once described his pictures as “the thinnest sculptures in the world,” an apt description for his stark figure/ground compositions, strong solid forms, and subtly drawn internal contours in low relief. But when translated into actual sculpture, this rich analogy is lost, as is Hume’s remarkable ability as a draftsman. The painted cheerleaders float as if blown in an erotic dream; the sculptures, heavily bound to pedestals, feel overdetermined and stiff. The fact that Hume’s cheerleading airheads really have no heads—and it is worth remembering here that George W. Bush excelled as a cheerleader at Andover—is too literal in the sculptures. A few paintings, in fact, include faces, in which all that is delineated are seductive eyes and mouths. In sum, the paintings are sexy; the sculptures are crude, caught between contradictory antecedents, Hans Bellmer and Allen Jones.

Hume, who now spends half the year in upstate New York, successfully captures the incomprehensible vagaries of American culture along with its enduring seductiveness. The loss of innocence in the current, disenchanted American political climate is also, the artist claims, a theme here. “American Tan” best delivers a condensed history of American postwar painting: De Kooning’s women meet Pollock’s drips (here highly controlled, marbleized areas that become just another uniform surface) meet Lichtenstein’s 1961 Girl with Ball. Like Warhol, Hume discovers that flattening the American dream onto a painted surface actually heightens its desirability. Hume is more at home revising the history of art, getting these once antithetical painters to coexist in peace, than making wartime political commentary, which fails to hit very hard. Ultimately “American Tan” feels more like a metaphor for the artist’s own position: as a now-middle-aged, successful Young British Artist, pursuing a kind of perpetual artistic youth by performing endless painterly acrobatics in the form of this new stock of virtuoso Gary Hume paintings

Gilda Williams