Gary Hume first began making his now considerable name in the late 80s painting doors. Seeing a newspaper advertisement for life insurance with a set of hospital double doors got him hooked. He spent four years covering doors in bright household gloss, with colored ovals and vertical or horizontal rectangles to suggest, among other possibilities, eyes, mouths, noses and dysfunctional National Health buildings.
Shiny, vibrantly colored and suspended between representational subjects and an abstract-geometric style, the paintings quickly drew the attention of critics and collectors. Charles Saatchi bought a few. So did Matthew Marks, his New York dealer. Around 1992, happily, Hume had a change of heart. "Bored" by so much repetition and ducking out fast from under a tired shtick, he successfully prevented, in a manner of speaking, his heavy wooden doors from hitting him in the ass.
A more expansive, felicitous style ensued. Then came, in successive order, the Turner Prize nomination, the "Sensation" exhibition, the 1999 Venice Biennale (where he was the UK's official representative) and that impossible label: "The Painter of Now." A household name in Britain and way famous in America at just 38, he would be easily hated were it not, in the words of one wag, for his beautiful, superficial and "irritatingly original" paintings.
Hume is an artist so well-liked by everyone in the art world that one staunch detractor of YBAs described him as "The flower on the dunghill of young British art." A graduate of Goldsmith's College of Art and an original member of the "Freeze" generation (the tiny art mafia Damien Hirst bum-rushed into the tabloids and art history books), Hume is the one Brit who is capable of charming old fogies and young turks alike. That art can both feel good and be contemporary is his quiet, unspoken message. Quite adroitly, his paintings embrace the newest, hippest thing while remaining blissfully ignorant of video monitors, large-scale installation, gobbledygook theory and shock value.
Unflappable in his pursuit of pleasure, Hume paints like a modern-day Matisse, his eye cocked toward pastel, suburban interiors rather than the soft landscapes of the sunny Cote D'Azur. His decorative affinities with the French master are clear, as they are with the works of David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly and Peter Halley (despite what the latter will parrot about simulacra). But Hume's imagery can be simplistic, vacant, even vulgar?he paints, he says, only "flora, fauna and portraiture"?and it is done in store-bought, household colors the artist takes straight from the can. So just what is it, then?to quote the first work of pop art ever?that makes Hume's paintings so "different, so appealing"?
There are a few simple elements in a Hume painting. As witnessed by his new exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery, this simplicity is capable of generating fantastic results in painting after painting. Using the deceptively elementary combination of pure, hard-line and crinoline color, Hume constructs lush, seductive surfaces that burst with dumb graphic power ("They disarm you," a British critic said on a visit to his London studio, "and make you feel suddenly, stupidly happy"), while hinting at universes of unspoken, inarticulate profundities. Composed of clean, candy-hued surfaces and beguiling, uncomplicated shapes, Hume's best paintings stiff-arm critical resistance with a singularly passive and suasive kind of beauty.
Hume's pictures, painted and sometimes poured onto smooth, aluminum panels, begin as acetate tracings the artist makes from book or magazine clippings and his own informal snapshots. The artist, admittedly "terrible" at drawing, transfers his images onto supports with the help of an overhead projector; pressing flat areas of color together onto aluminum supports, he plays impressively rich tricks with his unimpressive enamel medium. Accumulated in slightly uneven, barely textured pools, Hume partitions broad areas of decorator colors like pink, pistachio, violet and aubergine into cool, updated imitations of cathedral windows or Fauve-like cloisonné.
Hume's strategic use of household paint is a telling one. The enamel gloss, an anonymous, hard-feeling substance that dries into a mirrorlike shine, reflects back the viewer's gaze while mimicking, at one and the same time, both the gleam and translucence of stained glass; it's reminiscent in effect of David Reed's see-through alkyd paintings and Warhol's trademark off-register silk-screens. Hume's work presents a basic physical fact in the guise of an imagistic paradox: his pill-colored, painted enamel surfaces return light like impenetrable mirrors, but tempt us to rend them like wispy, revealing veils all the same.
Among the 20 paintings on view at Matthew Marks are Hume's characteristically vague figures and his images of faces and flowers, so pared-down as to be rendered partially or totally unrecognizable. Of these, works like Nest, The First World War and Sorrow play a game of find-the-figure with the viewer, a conceit that would get old fast were it not for the artist's trademark catchy colors and the loose, biomorphic balance that drives the engine of nearly every painting by Gary Hume.
Two other, more easily readable images recall older works the artist made from magazine reproductions of English celebrities Patsy Kensit and Kate Moss. The first, Water Painting, features five climbing silhouettes of a bare-breasted model lined in brown (or is it mocha?) on a mustard background. The other, Charlie, takes baby blue and pastel yellow enamel and reconfigures a generically familiar, retro-hip, 60s poster pose of a certain attractive woman's mien. So friendly it threatens to slip into burbling, Teletubbies kitsch, Hume's hatless, Holly Golightly version of Warhol's Blue Jackie goes down easy, like strawberry milk, despite the frisson built into its cool-looking if nasty art historical reference (the platinum-wigged one made his original painting to mock-memorialize the Kennedy widow).
Even more complex works, like Green and Black Orchid, Red Tree and the gigantic Belarus, further ratchet up the electric buzz of Hume's paintings from, as it were, five feet in. Flat and plastic as a yellow rain slicker from a distance, these paintings reveal stenciled grooves and brush marks, carvings and tectonic slippages that turn out to be more than simple lines drawn through the artist's characteristically dense coats of enamel.
The highly geometric work Red Tree, for example, evidences a world of finely wrought textures on its abstract surface: short, choppy brushstrokes animate the painting, pulling for and against alternating areas of gloss and matte in a shade of jawbreaker red. Another painting, the two-panel Belarus, the exhibition's largest, presents a similar, albeit off-kilter story. Painted on a pair of door-sized, mismatched aluminum panels, Hume's green and sea-blue work features a rounded, goofy version of an upside-down Baselitz head disjointed by broken lines and what must be a pure Hume invention: a tenth-of-an-inch buckling seam raised between otherwise flat areas of color.
Hume is the type of back-to-basics artist on whom innovation looks like genius. He is not. Rather than disappoint us, this fact should set us free to appreciate his work for what it represents beyond the now stale hype of an establishment YBA: hard-won painterly optimism, a personalized take on pop imagery, radical painterly simplicity. No "genius of omission," his gift brazenly commits to present-day beauty in its recognizably consumerist, product-oriented, candy-colored guise.