Close Look

The Subtle Subversions of Gary Hume

The Subtle Subversions of Gary Hume
Gary Hume, detail from "Migration," 2013

Pop. Minimal. Conceptual. Surreal. The English artist Gary Hume's body of work is indefinable yet immediately distinct, characterized by pared-down images that pop with immediacy—not only due to their technique (the artist often paints industrial gloss on aluminum) but also because of their subject matter, which ranges from polar bears and four-leaf clovers to Michael Jackson. Read on for a guide to the major themes of Hume’s oeuvre.


Hume is commonly associated with the YBA’s (Young British Artists) who graduated from Goldsmith’s College in the late '80s. His work was included in Damien Hirst’s notorious “Freeze” exhibition in 1988, as well as “East Country Yard,” organized by Sarah Lucas and Henry Bond. While Hume’s work was perhaps more subtle than that of other YBAs, his art-world recognition has never waned for it. His work appears much simpler to make than it is, due to a process that involves affixing strips of draught excluder—a kind of insulation material—onto his aluminum canvases while painting and then peeling it off in order to planes of gloss paint with clean edges. In 2001, he was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts, the first YBA to receive that honor. His quietly subversive paintings define him as much as the scandalizing work of his peers.


Hume achieved widespread acclaim with his “Door” series, life-size paintings of institutional doors rendered in gloss on aluminum. "A door is such a paradoxical and generous object,” he has said. “Nothing is more blank and empty. Or more full." He first showed the series at “Freeze” and then attracted the attention of dealers such as Charles Saatchi. The flat, high-sheen planes of color that were arranged into blocks, circles, and crosses—almost evocative of faces in some paintings—electrified the art world.


Hume creates “celebrity” portraits, albeit with a distinctly painterly twist. A “portrait” of English DJ Tony Blackburn reveals a flower-like black blob, more Rorschach than reality. Another painting of Michael Jackson reveals the King of Pop as seen through a kind of porthole, his skin rendered in lavender and his exaggerated features isolated into abstraction. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the least identifiable of all: a green mass that is only defined by a huge lemon-yellow mouth. More recently, a series of paintings showing isolated, pastel-colored glimpses of rollicking cheerleaders (often caught in mid-cartwheel) comes off as mysterious, alien, and, for those who decipher them, surprisingly erotic. The space between our immediate perception of these figures and what Hume actually paints creates striking interpretations.


Hume has become well-known for his images of nature and animals, imagined as flat, vividly colored scenes of stark simplicity. A good deal of flora and fauna, in drastically altered form, can be found in Hume's work. Common subjects the artist returns to again and again are birds and flowers, perhaps because their sweetness is so strongly recast in clean lines and stark contrasts. Orchids, roses, and tulips become the basis for sharp patterns and striking singular images. A polar bear is viewed from below, as if we are looking at it standing on on a glass surface, and a giant cuckoo is defined by five carefully arranged shapes of color.


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