“The very reasons that painting’s thought to be dead are the reasons I love it. It’s very old. It’s very simple. It’s very direct. It’s very primitive.” Gary Hume, who is himself a kind of knowing, modern primitive, is sitting in the kitchen-cum-dining-cum-living-room of his studio, a converted warehouse in
If painters are, as some believe, an endangered species, then Hume for one is not going quietly. At 37 he is both the most prominent and the most active - manically active, some might say - English painter of his generation. He represented
The pictures in question are large, bright, elegant and frequently disconcerting, not least in their incorrigible variousness. The subjects of this prolific, unpredictable artist have included birds, snowmen, fashion models, minor celebrities and rabbits. He is currently painting a series of pictures of angels because he likes the idea of “imagining an angel looking”. He says this with a solemn child-like seriousness that brings to mind that other English seer and painter of mystic visions, William Blake, who once saw a tree full of angels on a bit of scrubland near Peckham. Hume is self-confessedly inconsistent, eccentric, playful and elusive. He is also one of the very few genuinely fashionable painters to have emerged in
But while Gary Hume is, it would seem, the pre-eminent Painter of Now, he is also an enigma. His unprecedentedly shiny paintings are mirrors in which it is evident that something which touches modern sensibilities has been caught and reflected. Yet just what that something might be is open to question - and it is an odd but incontrovertible fact that even Hume’s most enthusiastic supporters seem quite unable to agree about the significance of his work. Indeed, they seem unable even to agree about its nature. Bryan Robertson, the sharp-eyed author and curator who organised the first Rothko and Jackson Pollock exhibitions in this country, back in the late 1950s, acclaims Hume as “the real thing” and says that “I believe he is essentially an abstract painter for whom a degree of figurative imagery provides a crucial trigger”. The New York-based art critic Lisa Liebmann, on the other hand, argues precisely the opposite: “despite the flirtation with abstraction, he appears at heart a figurative artist.” Liebmann adds that “there remains the matter of what Hume’s work is about” - a subject on which, like so many other critics and commentators to have been seduced by Hume’s work, she remains unhelpfully silent.
Talking to Gary Hume, the enigma himself, can feel a little like interviewing the Sphinx. He has a tendency to answer questions with riddles of his own or with statements of a poetic but gnomic kind. On the figurative/abstract question, as raised by Liebmann and Robertson, he simply declares it “a meaningless distinction of the kind critics sometimes make”, implying (and he is surely right) that all painters are essentially amphibian in this respect. He also says that he does not terribly like to talk about his pictures and what they mean. “I find it very difficult to talk about what I do, and about what other artists are doing, at the moment. Everybody is doing something, and everybody is doing something different, and what is art anyway? I don’t know what the value of it all is. I’d prefer not to talk about my art at all in a way, because it’s too scary - it might be rubbish, and you might say it, and I’d have to believe you.” Just as he has developed a number of different modes of painting, so too in conversation he seems similarly discontinuous and changeable. He oscillates between a disarming, almost embarrassing openness about his aims - “I want to paint something that’s gorgeous, something that’s perfect, so that it’s full of sadness” - to a cloaked and mildly self-ironising taciturnity. Having managed the rare feat of achieving fame and success as a painter, without anyone pinning him down, he is not about to give himself away now.
This does not come across as a conscious strategy of self-concealment, but as an attempt to keep his confidence intact (nothing is more important to an artist as Matisse remarked, than his self-esteem) and, simultaneously, to stay true to the nature of what he makes. Hume conveys the impression that talking about the meanings of his paintings misses the point of them, somehow - that in trying to say what a picture is about, a risk might be run of destroying or at least damaging the thing itself. He suggests that what his paintings mean actually has very little meaning for him, in the end - that he does not think in those terms and that they aren’t really, in the end, about anything at all, but are attempts to capture what he cares about, which might be an image or a thought or a feeling (or a bit of each, mixed together). Asked if he paints to express himself, to explore himself, to find himself or to avoid himself, he answers no to all of the above. “I paint to try and recognise myself”.
Hume’s pictures of animals - originally derived, like most of his works, from magazine and textbook images traced, projected, repainted and otherwise rearranged - are perhaps the epitome of this oblique and nervy enterprise, this attempt to find a way to catch parts of the self that cannot easily be articulated. Rescued from banality by his edgy, cloisonne compositions and dissonant palette, Hume’s Blackbird, or his several Rabbit paintings, seem like double-distanced versions of the self-portrait genre. The blackbird, poised on a snowy twig, against a mass of abstract foliage, with its single beady round eye, could be about to give song or take flight. The dumb creature, perpetuated in art, has acquired another form of eloquence. It is as if, in picturing it, what Hume was really after was the picturing of a feeling: a kind of wary, melancholy, self-reliant solitariness, the solitariness of the artist in his studio, even.
Poised and consummately art-directed into what can seem, at first sight, like a form of affectless cool, many of Hume’s paintings actually make an old-fashioned appeal to humanity. They may encapsulate what has often been thought or felt but do so in new and arresting ways, placing an uncommon slant on common experiences or perceptions. Faceless Kate looks like a reflection on fame and how the glamour it confers is so often accompanied by a sense of distance, both from the self and others. The so-called Water Paintings on which the artist has been working this year are layered images of female nudes, drawn in a cursive line, one superimposed on another. Looking at them is like looking back in time, like remembering old friends and lovers, or of confusing memories with fantasies. They have the iconic quality of some Pop Art, Hume’s idealised, emblematic nudes, but the effect of the pictures is less brash and upfront than much Pop: this is painting as reverie rather than billboard. At a time when much modern art gives the impression that it was designed primarily for the approbation of an in-crowd, Hume’s pictures are unusually approachable, and he has done much to dispel the prevalent popular conception of modern painting as a rather obscure and specialised activity.
Although Hume will not himself be drawn to comment on others’ interpretations of his work, he is happy that people should want to interpret it. “When a painting’s finished it has to have room in it, a space for other people to inhabit. I don’t paint narrative pictures, pictures with a definite story to them, because it’s too limiting, too closed-down.” Thinking out loud about this, he wonders why it is that he should nevertheless love the paintings of Hogarth, the English narrative painter par excellence. He concludes that “Hogarth could paint great narrative pictures because he was always looking out at others, whereas I only ever look into myself. He could do it and I can’t. If I painted narrative pictures it would be hideous, like playing a tape of myself back to myself.”
Self-recognition is alright, in other words, but self-indulgence is out. There will be no messy autobiography, no expressionistic heroics. Hume is a painter who sets out to snare his own thoughts and emotions on the wing, before they’ve settled, and to present them, mediated, in the guise of images of other things. Distance is important to him. “If I can make a picture so it’s like when you focus off into the distance, and you’re thinking - if the painting can be like that I can bear looking at it.”
If Hume has striven for anything, over the years, it is a lightness of touch and attitude. He found his freedom, as a painter, he says, when he disburdened himself of heavyweight art historical ambitions - a moment symbolised for him by his decision to stop thinking of his works as “paintings” and start calling them “pictures” instead. “I realised that it’s pictures, it’s pictures that I like. I love the phrase ‘Picture this’, and that’s basically what I try and do, I try to picture it. Earlier in my life, when I thought that what I was doing was making paintings - when I described them as paintings - I felt I had the whole history of painting to worry about, and how they were going to sit within that. But as soon as I called them pictures, because there are so many millions of pictures in the world, because it’s a category that includes almost everything, the field was so big that I felt free again. It was a completely liberating false construct, but one that I needed at the time, just to allow myself to do things.”
Hume’s “paintings” became “pictures” during the early 1990s, when he completed what was seen, by many close to him at the time, as a near suicidal volte-face. Having graduated from Goldsmiths’ School of Art in 1988, he had come to prominence - together with such close contemporaries as Damien Hirst, Fiona Rae and Rachel Whiteread - almost dangerously early in his career. He had an influential and dynamic young dealer, Karsten Schubert, and his paintings were being avidly collected by Charles Saatchi and other leading connoisseurs of the cool art of the time. He was painting what promised to be an infinitely extensible series of pictures which looked abstract at first glance but which were all, in fact, based on the shapes and designs of the doors to be found in hospitals, with their portholes and kickplates. Hume’s paintings then epitomised a certain type of chic but glum postmodernism, being works which seemed to declare that modern art was itself in the terminal ward, that it had come up against a blank and closed door beyond which lay only the yet blanker condition of death. To perfect these exemplary parodies of modern painting, and to exonerate himself from even the slightest suspicion of tastefulness, Hume even got his friends to select the colours they were painted in (they were very beautiful, for all that, bearing out the general rule that almost every Minimalist or Conceptualist is a closet aesthete).
Hume’s pictures were all the rage, circa 1990-91, and a long and profitable future turning out increasingly honed variations on the nihilistic and polyvalently portentous theme of the Closed Door seemed to lie in wait for their creator. But the trouble was that Hume had grown disillusioned with his own disillusionment. The titles of his paintings became ever-increasingly acerbic (a picture bitterly called More Fucking Values marked a watershed) and then he simply stopped painting them altogether. Instead, he made a short movie - “a serious funny film” - with the self-hating title Me as King Cnut (sic). Hume played the starring role, sitting in an overflowing bathtub, fully clothed, wearing a cardboard Burger King crown and trying to tell a joke without ever reaching the punchline. After a minute of bathos, the film abruptly ends. Having thus not so much disowned as dismembered his own artistic persona, the artist found that his dealer had dropped him and he suddenly became poor.
He thought of making more films but, having already worked for a while in documentary television, he realised that he was not cut out for any form of collaborative work. He had worked his way up to the position of assistant film editor in his early twenties, shortly before applying for art school - “but I used to argue with the directors and producers all the time, because I hated the way they twisted the material for the sake of ratings.” So, having made a King Cnut of himself he abandoned film and returned to paint. His only rule was that he must paint the things that he cared about, and he has been doing it ever since.
Hume describes his abandonment of a winning formula, not as an act of heroism or bravado, but simply as an inevitability. At Goldsmiths, he recalls he had been taught to believe that “you have to justify your practice as an artist with an idea that is reasonably intelligent and cohesive. But I suddenly found that I didn’t have any ideas that were either intelligent or cohesive.” He still has not found a rationale for the work he is doing, but says that in a lot of ways he feels richer rather than poorer for not having one. He says he found the experience of creative crisis “liberating, but very nude-making.”
Despite apparently turning his back on his own past, certain elements of continuity seem to have run through all that Hume has done. He has continued to work with gloss, which he originally adopted for his door paintings for the straightforward reason that “doors are generally painted in gloss, so I felt a picture of a door should be done in the same material”. But over they years he has grown to like it for other reasons too. “It’s like a liquid gone solid and being a wet paint that sets, it stays fluid and it reflects light. Because I don’t paint the illusion of light, because I don’t pretend light, it’s really important that there should be light in it somehow. It also creates different levels of looking, so you see the picture and then, as you are looking further into it, suddenly you see yourself reflected, and then you see further behind yourself, and then you go back to the surface of the painting, the material, once again - it’s quite nice, all these small spatial leaps that you can make when looking at reflections. I enjoy them, anyway, because there’s nothing I enjoy more than looking.”
Hume remains, as his earlier work declared him to be, something of an iconoclast - still a painter who likes to have a go at his elders every now and then. Two years ago he painted a strikingly absurd portrait of Francis Bacon in brownface, as if he were wearing a mudpack or an ill-fitting balaclava, with a few strands of bright pink hair protruding from his cranium, with winking mascaraed eyes and wearing bright mauve lipstick. This weird, tragi-comic invention was an attempt, perhaps, to cut the most ogre-like of British contemporary art’s founding fathers down to size, but for all its camp, clownish absurdity it was also a compassionate, perceptive picture, in its way - a genuine portrait, in the sense that it captures some of Bacon’s own masochism and self-hatred. It is also a picture which seems to encapsulate Hume’s uneasy relationship with father figures in general. This may have something to do with the fact that he never knew his own father. He was brought up, single-handed, by his mother, the manageress of an NHS surgery, in the
His aversion to those who would organise him or boss him about was brought home to Hume with renewed force recently when he took Joe, his 13-year-old son, on a weekend of mock-military manoeuvres. “Paintballing, they call it, because instead of bullets you fire these pellets of paint. I think it is probably the most hideous thing in the world. There were two men who wanted to organise everybody, because it is a kind of military thing, and somebody has to make the decisions. So I’m sat there, not really enjoying it, and hurting, because the effing things hurt when they hit you, with these great bruises on me, and I’m watching these two men getting taller and taller, and speaking louder and louder, and then I notice that they’ve started speaking to each other with their hands behind their backs now, as they’re organising all these kids to go into this maelstrom of paint - and I’m sat there thinking ‘Oh my God, this must be what it is like in a real war - these idiots are going to send me to my death in a minute.’ Which they did, of course. Thank God it was only paint. What a nightmare. So, um, no authority figures.”
Working in his own maelstrom of paint, away from the authority figures, painting his nudes and his angels, his men with funny faces and his animals, Hume comes across as less of an angry young man than he once did. “I used to be hard-edged and now I’m woolly,” he says. “But I don’t mind.” He seems grateful for his current glut of ideas for pictures and infused with a fresh sense of painting as a field filled with possibilities. He has discovered a deep attachment, he says, to medieval art: “I don’t know any of the names of the artists, I’m no good at that sort of thing, but it’s definitely my favourite period of art. I love the way they paint things like necks. I love they way that they paint pain, they do suffering so brilliantly.” This might seem an unlikely affinity, but it has a certain logic to it, and it leads him back to where the conversation began - his love of picture-making and of painting as a medium, his love of the simplicity of an image made by a man using his eyes and his hands and some wet stuff on the end of a stick.
“One of my favourite realisations came to me recently when I had to give a lecture about my work to all these rather terrifying ladies at the