Tuesday, 30 October 2007



The recent show of paintings by Gary Hume at White Cube, London continued the artist’s interest in flat shapes or silhouettes played across grounds, often the polished aluminium support the artist has favoured since the late 90s. The outlines are characteristically ambiguous, the fill to them occasionally a more modulated field of hatched lines or small strokes of various colours now, introducing a subtle concession to gesture, but essentially maintaining the format.

Hume’s most popular works are probably the portraits, animal and floral motifs that arise in the mid 90s. His work there shares interesting parallels with other ‘trace and fill’ approaches, such as that of Lisa Ruyter. However Hume is much freer with his tracing and the emphasis shifts accordingly. His project has more to do with the distance the bold tracing places on familiar icons. The work abstracts the object, but only so far, toys with a kind of debased or clichéd abstraction; hovers between standard icon and greater abstraction. This interest owes more to the erosion of boundaries between the two that occurs throughout the 80s, in works by artists such as Philip Taaffe and Lari Pittman.

Hume emerged around 1990, with a series of works using the design of a door or double doors, often the kind with inset windows (this example not a painting of course), found in institutions, sometimes with inset panels, recalling a past era. However the salient feature to these works is not the style of the doors but their 1:1 or life scale and high gloss enamel finish in commercial or industrial colours. In size, design, colour and finish works such as Incubus (1991) are actually scrupulously realistic, and yet the absence of volume or tone almost obscures such accuracy. Instead the works are as easily treated as an abstraction – which of course they are – but interestingly now, the choice of commercial pastels and high key tertiaries resist the norms for geometric abstraction as well, so that shapes, proportion and composition then give the painting a peculiar and uneasy scale, the work is door-sized, yet shapes, colour and space also take relations from the picture frame, give the materials and painting a ghostly (even parasitic, as the title suggests) proximity to the object depicted.

Hume’s project then is about abstracting or filtering out various qualities to commercial enamels, standard door design; geometric abstraction in painting. The design is not just for a standard door or abstract painting, the painting is not just a door or design, the door is equal parts abstract and actual. This variable or polyvalent approach to painting straddles abstraction and the more concrete or figurative; floats between the popular and obscure. It gives the work an arch attitude, not quite Pop, not quite purist or formalist, a bemused detachment from more concerted painting, from a closer engagement with icons and their worlds. It is an attitude shared by many of his British contemporaries.

Hume’s work subsequently turns to more figure-based themes, but it is notable that shapes are rarely dogged tracing, that they keep their distance from common icons, maintain a high gloss finish, if only to contrast with the uncertainty of shape or outline. Elsewhere they are transferred to prints, and surrender a little of that insistent finish. Works such as Francis Bacon (1998) or Whistler (1996) can nevertheless deliver an amusing caricature and much of Hume’s popularity lies in his ingenuity in this. However in following works Hume sheds the flat colours to allow mere outlines, stressing the simplification to icons. Bare outlines soon allow superimposed sets or layers of competing versions that again tend to filter out a literal reading, take on a more abstract function, underline a given width, hesitation or brittleness for a given object.

The exercise is hardly novel but it shows how Hume gradually extends outline, continues to balance abstraction against the figure; looks for the simple and familiar from which to build the complex and elusive. More recent work looks to less obvious objects, Pink and Green Smoke (2005) and Regents Park (2005) attenuate the derivation, trace more freely. Other work returns to flat silhouettes, thus distanced. Drawing and colour can still tease the object but they lack the link to décor offered by doors. Works such as American Tan VIII (2006-7) now compound layers, use outline against fill and polished surface and the effect is elegant, but each layer now filters a little less, is stricter for the variation. While superimposition has freed his tracing, it remains to be seen if it can bring a similar liberation to colour and finish.

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