American Tan XXVIII (2008)
The first draft of this review began thus:
“In his essay Cuisine ornamentale, published in the mid-1950s and collected in his celebrated Mythologies (1957), the French cultural critic Roland Barthes decried a tendency of the magazine Elle to extend the glossiness of its own production values to the content of its cookery pages. Every week, he wrote, Elle would publish a colour photo of some elaborate dish in which ‘the predominant substantial characteristic is the coating (le nappé): visible effort is made to glaze surfaces, to surround them, to swamp the food itself with a smooth patina of sauce, cream, fondant, or jelly… This universal glazing is, in fact, a demand that we accord its object a certain distinction, refinement, eminence… ’
“That word, le nappé, kept coming back to me as I prowled between the paintings and sculptures making up this small retrospective of Gary Hume’s work, wondering why, for the most part, I didn’t get it – or indeed, if there was anything to get. Perhaps it was all the gloss paint used for many of the pieces. Sheets of aluminium evenly covered in simple blocks of uniform bright colour, balloonlike bronzes sheathed in shiny black or white carapaces: this work announces its surface, its coating, as brashly as a new car’s bodywork, a glossy nailpolish, or a 1950s gastroporn photograph. But does it announce anything else ?”
Then my computer died on me, and I couldn’t do anything more on it for nearly two weeks. But I did go back to take a second look at the Gary Hume , and I couldn’t believe my eyes… Somehow, that fortnight away from first impressions, and the prejudices they had triggered, enabled me to see the work afresh. Yes, the surfaces were glossy, the materials and their combination unusual and confrontational, the colours bright and simple, but coming back to them with an idea of what I thought they looked like, I found myself completely confounded. Instead of a uniform Barthesian nappé, I found an array of textures and variations beneath the outer sheen which was little short of astonishing. Pictures I had been prepared to dismiss as slapdash and overly simplistic, like Roots (1993) and Flying (1995), disclosed a technical effort and a subtlety of finish which simply hadn’t been apparent (to me, at least) on an initial view.
Four Doors I (1988-89)
Paint is layered, scraped, pooled and brushed, in a range of ways, rewarding close examination and the viewing of each piece from different distances and angles. In fact, it can probably be asserted that the glossier the surface – the greater its initial resistance to examination – the more there is to be discovered. Four Feet in the Garden (1995), ostensibly just a silhouette of, well, two pairs of human feet facing each other above stylised blades of grass, is delicately inscribed with detail of the toes and carries two mysterious whorls of relief positioned above them. Although his paintings will sometimes use contrasting blocks of colour for immediate effect, there is actually more going on within individual colour-areas than between them. This, of course, makes the pictures fiendishly difficult to photograph, so be warned about judging them from the illustrations accompanying this text – they really need to be seen in their original state.
Snowman (not in the Leeds show)
The same goes for the sculptures. The bronze may have been denatured by treatment with Hume’s ubiquitous gloss paint, but their surfaces are far from uniform. American Tan VII (2006-2007) is an assembly of sections of human legs, planed and curved with a solidity, presence, and isolation both familiar and poignant. Even the ‘snowman’ sculpture The End of Fun (2004) – two sets of three black-painted spheres stacked on top of each other – has an irregular, ‘made’ quality which works against its stylised premiss. American Tan VI (2006-2007) combines a tan-painted ‘legs’ motif with what would appear to be a giant bare-bronze chrysanthemum, a touching and funny comment on the relationship between artifice and nature.
Water Painting (1999)
On this second visit, I took time to watch parts of the film of Gary Hume talking about his work which is played on a loop in an anteroom to the main exhibition. In it he talks about the particular qualities of the gloss-paint medium: “There are no light-effects in my paintings” he says at one point “but the paint itself loves light.” Quite. He is engagingly modest about his drawing ability, although on the strength of the complex, interweaving human outlines in Water Painting (1999) he has no real need to be. He is clearly a highly original craftsman and thinker about painting, and appears, remarkably, to have found a new and challenging way to skin the old artistic cat.
Gary Hume - Flashback is at Leeds Art Gallery, The Headrow, Leeds, until 15th April.