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Review of Gary Hume at Tate Britain

The man who made a name for himself by painting hospital doors has come a long way with a very simple formula: gloss paint in bold, expansive colours on aluminium panels, treading a line between abstraction and figuration.

Hume has always been called the quiet one among his YBA contemporaries, who are currently taking turns in staging spectacular mid-career retrospectives. He entered the scene with a devilishly simple idea and then subtly honed his craft so that he could explore the wealth of human experience from nature, love, celebrity and politics to melancholy, loss, joy and wonderment. This survey at Tate Britain offers a modest selection of 24 paintings that demonstrate how Hume’s work is replete with nuances of emotion, vitality and character.

The show is curated with great composure and restraint, leaving swaths of wall between pictures so that each one can be contemplated as an isolated element in a twenty-year period. At face value, Hume’s style has not been subject to a paradigm shift, but, as with all art that is worth looking at, the delight is in the detail. In more recent works, such as Tulips (2009) and Paradise Painting Three (2010), the trace of brushstrokes has been more or less eradicated. This gives the paintings a supernatural shimmer, as if finally the artist has conquered the chaos of nature, in contrast to the sometimes fuzzy brushwork of earlier works like Tony Blackburn (1994). Over the years, Hume has overcome what Merleau-Ponty called ‘Cezanne’s doubt’ – he gave up the conventions in order to continually paint the world as he perceives it at a given point in time.

Although the world is abstracted in Hume, so that Angela Merkel (2011) is nothing but a gaping, pained yellow mouth, there is a palpable affection in the way he treats his subjects. Nicola as an Orchid (2004) compares a beautiful woman to a rare flower, while Older (2002) expresses sympathy with the ravages of age. Hume often just paints in outline, but the divisions between one sprawl of colour and another are so bold, often jarring, that each element is given, and demands, undivided attention. In Blackbird (1998), the bird sits centre-stage on its branch, owning the picture, even though there is no distinction in colour between it and the tree, as if to say, with Zen harmony, all nature is One.

The absence of an early door painting fails to encourage a fresh approach to Hume, as intended, and rather robs of any real context his early move towards a darker pallet and more intricate composition. Indeed, the entrance painted in the style of a door painting, How to Paint a Door (2013), reads like a bad joke – too literal and poorly timed. But it doesn’t matter, since you leave the show with a sense that Hume has never lost the restraint, simplicity and expressive energy of those hospital doors; he has continually reinvented it in so many delicious ways.

Daniel Barnes

Gary Hume, 5 June until 1 September, Tate Britain, Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG. www.tate.org.uk

Image: Gary Hume, Anxiety and the Horse. Angela Merkel 2011 . Private collection Matthew Marks Gallery © Gary Hume

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