Gary Hume, ‘Door Paintings’, Modern Art Oxford, 15th June – 31st August 2008
I’m ashamed to admit that I visited Modern Art Oxford’s excellent Gary Hume survey reluctantly. I had been disappointed by White Cube’s 2006 ‘Cave Paintings’ exhibition, where Hume’s collaged marble and lead tableaux were cold (rather like the materials) and without emotional impact; the appropriation of such historically rich and nuanced materials felt unconnected with the artist’s simplified figure forms, despite their referencing of religious subjects. In a gallery renowned for its commercialism, marble was perhaps doomed to be read only as a luxury commodity, matching the designer furniture and clothing on sale in boutiques in the surrounding area.
Gary Hume has experimented with various media and motifs (among them ‘flora, fauna and portraiture’, according to Anne Prenzler) since he first came to the art world’s attention in the late eighties while still a student at Goldsmiths College, London. Some of his earliest Door paintings were included in the now legendary Freeze exhibition that heralded the somewhat flashy arrival of the Young British Artists in 1988. It is these, seemingly abstract, deceptively simple paintings that Suzanne Cotter, Deputy Director of Modern Art Oxford and curator of Hume’s exhibition chose to concentrate on. In contrast to the ‘Cave’ paintings, the works in this show rely upon various transformations of basic, easily accessible materials, and attentiveness to the breadth of visual, tactile and conceptual possibilities within a limited formal and thematic range. As Hume has continued making Door paintings across a twenty year period, the exhibition’s chronological presentation provides an opportunity to track this thread in his artistic development from what the exhibition text calls his early ‘formal and conceptual purity’ to the present, perhaps more painterly work.
Based on the large swing doors in St Bartholomew’s hospital, the earliest paintings on show have the closest resemblance to actual doors. They are hung low on the wall and imitate that awkward, institutional shape, but the most convincing detail is the marking of the surface. The plain medium of unmixed household gloss paint is manipulated with scratches and blunt brushmarks, (and in ‘Dolphin Painting V’, 1991, score marks or imprints of tape separating the sections) thinned or built up at different areas – a record of the artist’s presence and procedures, but also alluding to the scuffing from overuse of real hospital furniture, immediately bringing to mind the utilitarian feel of British public buildings. In this way these paintings - on traditional canvas supports, meticulously primed and sanded - move between being strangely representational and imperfectly minimal.
The work of Los Angeles based photographer Uta Barth, who carefully records the changes throughout the day in her own home, came to mind at this point in the show. Perhaps because of the pale palette (close tones of brown, cream and pink) and Hume’s interest in the effect of changing light on the paintings; perhaps also because the repetition of something so familiar as a slice of an interior influences the way one thinks about it. A sentence from Barth’s exhibition catalogue (from ‘In Between Places’, 2000) could equally refer to Hume’s work: ‘couched in an awareness of conceptual practices but [evolving] a discourse with methods and concepts that have been seen as operating outside of most Conceptual art strategies, pure perception and depictive modes among them.’ Barth’s interest in perception and visual experience involves a careful steering away from narrative or symbolic interpretation. In the same way, Hume’s early Door paintings are startlingly sensuous, the expanses of gloss (like a doorway, the right size to encompass a human body) and balanced shapes and colours, at least as important as (and standing in tension with) the multiple references to real objects and art historical moments.
In the second gallery, a long painting alluding to Picasso’s Guernica tackles formal balance with a much greater variety of colours and tones – brown, cream, deep red, orange, yellow and pink – borrowed from its namesake. A painting with a title like this (‘My Guernica’, 1992) manages to raise questions of the political and ideological value of painting, in contrast to the possible frivolousness of the purely visual and the mundane investigation into public furniture. However, moving past this to the last room, ‘Black Door with Sash’, 2006, and ‘Shine’, 2001, make shimmeringly visual and even painterly statements. ‘Shine’, a Barnett Newman-esque work on board is a dazzling yellow, with a plump pink stripe dividing the piece down the middle. Four circles, perhaps standing in for the ‘portholes’ sometimes found in institutional doors, are painted in a thick grey that resonates brilliantly with the yellow so that their edges appear to repel and attract the background at the same time. The yellow itself, smooth looking from a distance, is textured with imperfections where the paint has gathered along the base of each wide brushstroke. With thick, long strokes, reminiscent of Jason Martin’s dragged paintings, and viscously different from the pocked smoothness of the rest of the show, ‘Black Door with Sash’ is suggested in the exhibition text as a kind of endgame. Perhaps this is because of its (lack of) colour, looking back to the black paintings of the mid twentieth century. But Hume’s investment of energy into this work suggests the beginning of a new phase, where the motif of the door is taken over by a more overt interest in the characteristics of paint itself.
Directly outside of the gallery entrance, across the street, a dark green and a mat black door consisted of indented rectangular panels, scuff marks where the wood showed through, and dabs of grey paint as if someone had started over-painting them and then had a change of heart. It felt strange to look at the real thing again after contemplating eighteen sets of ghost doors. I was grateful to Hume for a heightened awareness of the qualities of paint and light, and of disciplined, proportional, exciting relationships between colours, tones and shapes – a transformation of the ordinary.
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Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.