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


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