this issue contains
>> Gary Hume
>> Ulrich Rückriem in the New National Gallery in Berlin

>> archive


Peonies, 2004
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

This search for a pure and objective painting contrasts with Hume’s subversive game between representation and subject; beginning with his Door Paintings and expanding from 1993 onwards to include figurative works such as portraits and images of flowers and animals, Hume pits figure and ground, figuration and abstract composition against one another. At first glance, Peonies (2004) looks like a gigantic olive brown spot blotting out the filigree image of a flower. Yet when observed more closely, it becomes clear that it’s precisely the seemingly abstract surface that reinforces the painting’s figurative elements. Wavy lines emerge through the enamel; delicately detailed organic structures in the shape of petals and leaves spread like veins beneath the opaque layers of paint, lending the painting a three-dimensional quality.

The End of Fun, 2004
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

"The thinnest sculptures in the world", as Hume remarked in a talk he gave during his 2004 exhibition The Bird has a Yellow Beak ( Kunsthaus Bregenz). Accordingly, the elementary forms of his paintings are complemented by a series of sculptures: starting off with a snowman doused in red food paint that Hume and his friends made in 1996, he created the painting Snowman, which is nothing more than two flat colored circles on a monochrome background – "… possibly the most devastatingly simple human avatar since Barnett Newman’s ‘zips’", as Michael Wilson wrote in the catalogue to Carnival. Beginning in 2002, the enameled Snowman sculptures developed out of this, gigantic ball-shaped objects that were perfect sculptures for the painter Hume, just as the doors of his Door Paintings were perfect doors. "It works entirely in the round: you’re supposed to be able to travel around it and there are no dead zones."

Lady Parker, 1998
Deutsche Bank Collection

Francis Bacon, 1998
Deutsche Bank Collection

Hume’s snowmen "work from every angle". The motifs and surfaces of his paintings are joined together in similar manner; the rules of both abstract and figurative painting apply, depending on the perspective. This also becomes clear in Hume’s Portraits, which are part of the Deutsche Bank Collection in London: Lady Parker is the title of one of the works from 1998.

Modeled after a Holbein portrait, the fine contours on the pale pink background form a fragile stylized woman’s face whose cheeks bear two round spots of "rouge". Yet when the painting is observed more closely, the round shapes sticking out of the face appear to be floating before it. Discovering this disturbing effect annihilates the "naturalistic" illusion of the face and allows the eye to take in the reduced composition of line and surface.

Yellow Hair, 1998
Deutsche Bank Collection

Poor Thing, 1998
Deutsche Bank Collection

A self-proclaimed "beauty terrorist" and master of disappointment, Hume defies expectation. While his portraits of famous contemporaries such as Francis Bacon or "Funny Girl" Barbra Streisand resemble a clownish freak show, the cool beauty of Warhol’s Flowers or Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white photographs of lilies reappears as nothing more than a blurry recollection in the flower paintings Hume creates from found illustrations. In finest Pop manner, he researches the utopia of the perfect image and then sabotages it in the most simple and direct way possible. Thus, the surfaces and lines of his paintings are deliberately unbalanced, as in the portrait Poor Thing (1998), who falls apart before our very eyes, smiling helplessly. In contrast, while the drips on Pink, Brown, Brown and Brown (2004) might recall the expressive power of Jackson Pollock’s "Drip Paintings", Hume guides them along calculated paths to create an impression of artistically arranged plants.

Pink, Brown, Brown and Brown, 2004
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

Nicola As An Orchid, 2004
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

In the field of tension between control and anarchy, however, Hume’s works are anything but cynical. Despite their bright colors and clear contours, his works always retain an enigmatic quality. While their shiny surfaces seem to reveal everything, they stubbornly resist being completely unmasked. The costume is always a ritual component of the carnival – yet in the case of Gary Hume’s paintings, it’s not a matter of invoking or exorcising spirits, but of the mysteries of painting itself.

Translation: Andrea Scrima

[1] [2]