Gary Hume – Flashback at the Jerwood


In a former lifetime when I was a civil servant, for a short time I had a management coach. Everybody was supposed to have so many days of training a year and they were the vogue at the time. So this bloke would turn up once a fortnight  I would moan about whatever it was that was bugging me at the time and he would always say ‘what could you possibly do?’ In the end it became internalised and was actually rather useful because listing everything you might possibly do to solve a problem occasionally brings up something you haven’t thought of, or, more often, makes you realize that every option is bad and it’s a matter of choosing the least dreadful and that at least stops you beating yourself up about it.

I have thought about him several times since starting the art course at Hastings College because the Head of Course, Patrick Jones, has a way of saying  – ‘what are you trying to say?’ or simply ‘why?’ and it is becoming internalized in the same way. It not just in me but with other students as well. Saying ‘well I thought it was a good idea’ or ‘why not?’ never seems a very satisfactory answer.

Having visited the latest Jerwood Exhibition which is showing Gary Hume, I have been thinking that perhaps – ‘I just thought it was quite cool’ might be legitimate after all. Why do we demand that artists not only create art but also tell us their innermost thoughts? Why should artworks communicate something rather than just be?

Six or seven hundred years ago it is unlikely you would have asked a medieval painter  ‘why?’ – the answer would have been self-evident:  the glory of God, or because his patron had commissioned  a portrait. But at that time there would have been a consensus about what constituted art and to a certain extent the standard to which artists should aim. Now with no real consensus about what constitutes good we demand something different – originality for sure, but  also that art is created in good faith.  There is something of a collective fear among non art aficionados  and collectors alike that when art can comprise a dead shark or the cast  of  a urine stream, that were it not created in good faith, we would be taken for fools.  Artist statements and the blurb that artists write about their work is all evidence that the art is, so as to speak, the genuine article.

Bird with a pink beak

Refreshingly, this is a game which Gary Hume refuses to play. “My paintings do not mean that or this. They don’t mean anything.”  He does not pander to our insecurities.  His pictures are what they are. Hume was one of the Young British Artists and exhibited  at the Freeze exhibition. His early success was of doors painted in gloss paint. His doors are doors – not gateways, not symbols but doors.  But the gloss is important – gloss paint reflects light. It is also utilitarian; it is not painterly. All his work glimmers; the Jerwood, with its wonderful natural light, shows them to advantage.

Four feet in the garden

In the  exhibition at the Jerwood there was a painting I particularly liked – Four Feet in the Garden. Though there seemed to be eight, it is still a painting of feet. But if there is no message, it remains an extraordinarily clever work.

At first you do not see the feet at all but the black space between the feet. Why called four feet if there are eight– have the feet moved? Then there is bird with a pink beak – that is what it is – it is complete in its birdiness. It is nothing else. But it easily passes the “I want one test.”

In a  fascinating video Hume  describes his technique in constructing his work. Often the images are found in books or other paintings or digital images. He spots a small part that he believes will make a picture. That is how he describes himself, as a picture maker. He explains how he found a sense of liberation in the realisation that after the work on the doors “I was unable to come up with a second signature piece; I had to accept the embarrassment of my intellectual failure. Embarrassment was what I was painting.”

American Tan

His sculptures show a similar simplicity. In the exhibition there is one of his snowmen ; they are quite extraordinarily tactile. The video showed larger examples; people were drawn to to them and and ran their hands over them. You long to do the same. They are featureless; each of them portrays not the front of a snowman but as it would appear from the back but there is a completeness which is deeply satisfying.  It would be nice to stroke the one in the Jerwood but Myles Calvert is there; he tells me he how he  had to struggle to prevent one woman touching it; I decide not to cause trouble but we both try blowing on American Tan; it faintly quivers.

Along one wall is a splendid painting comprising four panels; there is no explanation of what it is about. There are hands undoubtedly and possibly, or possibly not, snowflakes. In view of the snowmen, I’m pretty sure they are snowflakes but  you know it doesn’t matter.

Four panels and a snowman


But is it finished?

The thing that is bothering me today is wondering whether I have I finished this painting or not. It’s called the Slipperiness of Thought and it  turns out to be even more slippery than I had thought it would be. So the basic concept is that it is not only difficult to know what other people are thinking about, but it is also difficult to know what you are thinking about yourself. Because as soon as you start wondering about the nature of your thoughts,  you are thinking about  thinking and not about whatever you were thinking about in the first place.

The slipperiness of Thought

Originally I intended to have the snaky bits, because snakes seemed quite a good image and amongst them were meant to be impressions of all the possible things that could flit through my mind and things that other people might be thinking about, or things that I thought they might be thinking about, which in a way was what I was thinking about myself, prompted by thoughts of them.

It didn’t work out like out that; when I had done an early sketch which annoyingly got nicked not, I imagine, because anybody wanted the sketch but because it was in an otherwise empty sketch book,  I had lots of ideas of possible thoughts. When it came to the painting all I could see were faces coming out of the random bits, so that is what it has turned into. Well, mainly; there are a few boats,  some dribbles and if you look very carefully a cup of tea and a house and a naked lady.

Faces just appeared
Or bits of faces

In one way lots of faces are fitting in a painting about thinking. Babies are apparently hard-wired to respond to faces; we see faces in inanimate objects. Most of the time when I am thinking, other people elbow their way in somehow. So that is the question, do more of them want to elbow their way in, or do I say enough is enough?

“Hang on a minute lads; I’ve got a great idea…” well greatish

So the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill has a coach on top of it. It is teetering on the edge of the roof, intermittently it cranks forward as if it’s about to tip over and fall off, except you know it won’t because you can see that there is a whacking great girder stopping it doing so and you don’t doubt the Health and Safety brigade has crawled all over it.  I’m not knocking that;  if it were to fall, it would crash into the car park three stories below. I might be there.

The work by British artist Richard Wilson is called” Hang on a minute lads I’ve got a great idea..” The words are the final line spoken by Michael Caine in the 1969 film the Italian Job; as he and his band of bullion robber mates are trapped in a coach hanging on the edge of a cliff face.

Wilson has explained that he came to the idea because when he was looking out from the Pavillion; he realised it was all about how the sea met the sky and so about the edge; that got him thinking how the coach in the film epitomized  the edge and that was how the idea was born.

However teetering things have been somewhat fashionable recently. Over on the South Bank on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall there is a houseboat, Le Roi des Belges, which has its bows hanging in space.

Le Roi des Belges on the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Designed by architect David Kohn and artist Fiona Banner,  it was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which is set on the Thames and in the Congo. It doesn’t move about but  it has a bit of edge, you might say, on the De La Warr coach as people are able to sleep on it – well some people  – a few lucky artists were invited to stay in what must be the best bedsit in London plus a handful of members of the public who were acute enough to find out about it before it was sold out back in January.

So if you are not already one of them it’s too late; it’s due to be moved somewhere else as the end of the year. Still, if staying in a teetering thing floats your boat there is still a chance to do so. Living Architecture, the company which organised the Roi des Belges, still has vacancies in Balancing Barn in Suffolk which is also gravity defying.

Balancing Barn – still vacancies in September

But if the finely balanced is so 2012, unusual things on roofs have a longer history. Anthony Gormley had 31 sculptures on London buildings in 2007. The De La Warr itself also had its Gormleys, though unlike the London ones they were lying down, this time on the roof terrace.

Critical Mass at the De La Warr Pavillion

The best roof sculpture of all to my mind is still the Headington Shark. Commissioned by Bill Heine, it is more than 25 years since it appeared overnight in a suburban street in Oxford,  but it still knocks spots off the rest:  it doesn’t need to move; the movement is implied in the angle which looks unsustainable.

The Headington Shark still sets the standard

Apparently back in 1986,  Oxford council wanted to close it down on health and safety grounds but  when engineers inspected the roof, they found girders that had been specially installed to support it and pronounced it safe. That is the difference between the Headington shark and the De La Warr coach;  the shark looks as if you see it at the point it has crash landed on the roof and you cannot see the structure which keeps it in place.

All the same in these wet summer days, things on roofs help cheer the place up; I’m all for it.  The coach managed to get a trickle of Bexhill residents to come and see it in the rain. So I think other artists should be encouraged to decorate roofs; the Shard I feel needs a giant squid, curling its tentacles around those four spikes; how about a submarine on the walkway on top of Tower Bridge? Most of all I want to see a Paul McCarthey on top of the Barclays Bank building in Canary Wharf. You know the one I mean, Complex Shit. It would be a perfect conceptual fit. It could even jut over the edge.

The Paul McCarthy  sculpture Complex Shit would be perfect for Barclays, Many thanks to my daughter for help with the Photoshop.



Royal Academy Summer Exhibition – what sells

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is always interesting, because in one intense burst you get a snapshot of what people up and down the land are actually producing and what people are prepared to fork out good money for.   Once the artworks have had a chance to accumulate, or fail to accumulate, little red sold circles,  it becomes an exercise in sociology as much as art appreciation and all the better for that.

So what sells?

  • Anything to do with cats
  • Anything for less than £150
  • Cats that are less than £150
  • Paintings or photographs in shades of grey, the difference being that in art, rather than books, shades of grey couldn’t possibly be said to be in poor taste
  • Bizarre things you think are in execrable taste,
  • and finally a painting you might have bought had you the money,  because amongst all the boring, sentimental and the weirdly horrible there is some fairly good stuff (aka stuff I think is good because every single piece has to be thought of as good by somebody otherwise it wouldn’t be there)

    Who wants to buy a cat? More people than want the zebra which was above.

The Summer Exhibition demonstrates, as nothing else can, the subjectivity of taste. I had just finished slagging off what I thought was an  extraordinarily horrible art work;  round it was and vaguely glittery. I have strong views about glitter; it should be limited to Christmas cards and self-adornment by the under 20s, when two women, possibly mother and daughter made a bee line for the work and spent some time in front of it. Might they actually be thinking of buying it? Where would they possibly put it. Alas I failed to capture it. Photography is forbidden so I  and quite a few others pretend to be checking our mobiles and take a surreptitious photograph before attracting the attention of the attendants. Inevitably some of the results are a bit lopsided.

This year it is the turn of the small painting; they are hung in the Grand Gallery to give more emerging artists a chance. The sculptures on the other hand seem to be heaped up willy-nilly as if they are a job lot in a provincial auction.

The sculptures seem plomped in the centre of the room

There are fewer red circles among the sculptures, though I do notice that a bronze cat is already taken.  The £150 rule applies here as well, an edition of a ceramic tape measure and a box of matches are both enviably red spotted.

If the small paintings have centre stage, they do not individually have more space. They are hung in  a wave that goes round the room and which actually looks better in reality than it does in photographs. As an installation, perhaps exploring the futility of painting, the arrangement is strong enough. However stacked on top of each other some ten deep, the eye is drawn by bursts of colour and then goes off at a tangent: “ugh I don’t like that pink one!” “why did they choose that dog?”  There is of course no information; the catalogue gives the name of the artist and the price; artists’ works are separated so it is hard to make comparisons or get any sense of an artist’s style.

I spot two by Tom Hammick – in different rooms. Tom is a tutor at Brighton University; he had rather a splendid exhibition at Brighton Museum. I like his work – the two the RA have chosen are pleasant enough but not to my mind nearly as good as his picture of a filling station or the slightly strange picture of some hoardings. They are small however.

Moonlit woods by Tom Hammick

I also track down one by Patrick Adam Jones. Patrick is a brilliant tutor and head of the FDA course in Fine Art Contemporary Practice at Sussex Coast College. If I hadn’t scoured the catalogue I would have never have found it. It is half way down a wall, small, white, almost translucent, deceptively simple actually rather interesting but completely let down by its position. It needed room to breathe.

This painting by Patrick Adam Jones needed room to breathe

I tell Patrick I have seen his painting; he is embarrassed even to be in the exhibition, though his Mum is pleased, and probably his kids too because he did take them to see it there, though he said he had to buy then a good lunch to make up for it. Pleasing your Mum and your kids has its attractions. He was persuaded to submit, he says; rather unconvincingly, he adds ‘never again’.

This is the problem with the Summer Exhibition, successful artists feel self-conscious and apologetic about taking part. That is hardly surprising in view of some of the stuff that gets in, some of the truly terrible stuff that is trotted out by Royal Academicians and because if you a happen to be selected it was because your painting was small rather than the one you consider to be your best.  The Summer Exhibition is in its 244th year, people  have been talking about updating it for at least the last 50 years probably the last 100; this year the Exhibition has had a rather a better press than usual, so the embarrassment factor may be diminishing.  To make it really cutting edge would mean fewer works by Academicians,  fewer art works chosen overall, more space given to each one; nobody would be happy with that either: the punters couldn’t buy the cats, with over 12,000 works submitted annually, even more artists would be turned down and the RA would make less money, so things are unlikely to change that much.