Prizes & awards
Annabel Tilley talks to Gary Hume about twenty-five years of practice, prizes and paint.
Gary Hume was born in Kent in 1962 and graduated from Goldsmiths in 1988. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1996, won the Jerwood Painting Prize in 1997 and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1999. Hume splits his time between London, where he has a studio in Old Street, and upstate New York where he also works. He is married to the artist Georgie Hopton. He had his first show with White Cube in 1995 and continues to be represented by the gallery with a fifth solo show in 2012. In 2013 Hume is the subject of a large survey exhibition at The Tate Britain.
From painting celebrities like Patsy Kensit and Kate Moss in his ‘flawed idols’ series to a quieter focus on flowers, birds and snowmen and the occasional allusion to the last sexual thoughts of a soldier dying alone on a battlefield in Afghanistan, the painter Gary Hume has managed to combine a whole host of different motifs in his work. This eclectic attitude has divided the critics: is he a profoundly shallow painter or a painter who reflects our shallow times? It is perhaps his fine eye for colour, shape and the infamous glossy aesthetic of a Hume painting that can leave viewers confused - are they inane or do these works reflect deeper concerns?
Gary Hume doesn’t care: “I just want to paint.” And he feels very strongly it’s up to others what they want to see or take away from his work. But he does concede: “Nothing is what it seems. There’s always under stuff.”
This has included using the surprising motif of American cheerleaders in a series of paintings and sculptures known as American Tan (2006). Now seen as a witty response to British Foreign policy and our longstanding under-the-thumb relationship with the US, Hume has commented that they offer “responses to America and how we’re all being tanned by American policy and culture, the war, and simple, complicated stuff like that.”1
1 Quote from Gary Hume’s artist biography on White Cube Gallery site.
Asked if it was difficult to be a painter at Goldsmiths in the eighties Hume replies, “Being a painter at Goldsmiths in 1988 was paradoxically easy because there weren’t many of us.”
Why painting? I ask.
“I like to be alone and I like making still, quiet things. Going right back to the beginning, I think that my vitality initially came from not being able to work, feeling a bit wrong, and asking myself how do you function in a world if you feel slightly wrong. I went to some drawing classes and found I loved life drawing. I like things to be simple. I always go to the place where I feel I can succeed. There really is no point in trying to be Leonardo de Vinci,” Hume says.
After a brief stint at Liverpool University, Hume returned to London and Goldsmiths, where he graduated alongside Damien Hirst in 1988 and was part of the now legendary exhibition Freeze organised by Hirst. From the start Hume’s degree show was a sell-out with Charles Saatchi having to put in a special order to buy some of Hume’s now renowned, Hospital Door paintings. Paradoxically, it was painting those very doors - and maintaining the ‘truth to materials’ ethos, common at the time - that introduced Hume to his beloved medium of gloss paint.
“I just love paint. For me the paint is central. It moves, it’s fluid, it’s sensual and it reflects life, all the time,” says Hume. “When I first started making the paintings of hospital doors, the doors themselves were painted in gloss. From that I saw how beautiful gloss paint was. Also it was cheap so as a poor student you could afford gallons of it.” Originally working on canvas, Hume quickly adopted aluminum rather than mdf as a support for his paintings. On the subject of colour, Hume admits: “I have generally avoided dark colours. I wanted to avoid the cliché of being serious. I couldn’t bear the trickery of tone.”
Nearly twenty-five years after Freeze Gary Hume is still in love with paint and making paintings. However, back at the beginning there was no belief that an artist could make a living. “When we went to art school, the chances of being a professional artist were virtually zero. So you didn’t go with the thought that you might make a living out of it - you went because you couldn’t make a living doing anything else… it’s hard to believe now that the art world was so tiny when we started…Cork Street!” 2
2 ‘Gary Hume: Flashback’ by Caroline Douglas & Dave Hickey (London: Hayward Publishing, 2012) p20.
When asked what advice he would give to today’s art students? Hume replies: “Do exactly what you like, when you like and how you like - whether you pass or not is irrelevant.”
This was the attitude of the YBAs themselves right back at the beginning. An attitude coming out of the punk era of the late seventies - a real can-do/up yours, show-no-respect attitude that was reflected in the pure do-it-yourself culture of gigs, exhibitions, fashion etc. The idea was: Don’t wait to be discovered, bring yourself to the attention of others, which is exactly what they did twenty-five years ago in Freeze - that class of 1988 Goldsmiths graduates led by Damien Hirst.
“When you start out everything is possible because you are not part of the art world but because you have no voice you have to make your work look like your work, which can be hard at the beginning and often comes about by chance.”
And Hume certainly did this with those first Hospital Door paintings, not only through selling work to Charles Saatchi straight out of his degree show, but being immediately represented and taken on by the then young Karsten Schubert, who gave him his first commercial gallery show alongside Ian Davenport and Michael Landy that same year.
The Big Prize(s)
The mid-nineties saw the rise and quick success of the YBAs. Mainly, according to Hume, because of being able to establish their reputation so quickly abroad through international exhibitions like: ‘Brilliant!’ held at the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, USA and ‘General Release’, a group show of YBA’s held at the 46th Venice Biennale, also in 1995. While later that decade Hume, himself, was being nominated for two of the biggest art prizes around: the Turner Prize and The Jerwood Painting Prize. When asked about losing out to Gordon Douglas for the Turner Prize in 1996, Hume says: “I really wanted to win. It was just so disappointing after all that hype and expectation, you just have to get the hell out there as quickly as possible, you and your friends. It’s horrible.”
However, the following year Hume went on to win the fourth Jerwood Painting Prize in 1997, beating the painter, Rose Wylie, among others. And then in 1999 Hume was chosen to represent Britain at the 48th Venice Biennale. Hume comments: “I loved it. It was a great experience, one of the best.” For Venice Hume made his series Water Paintings, large-scale overlapping line-drawings of nudes on flat plains of colour.
In 2001 Gary Hume was elected a member of the Royal Academy and now regularly shows work in its summer exhibitions. In the past two decades Hume has had a series of solo shows including at the Hayward Gallery in 1998 and the Whitechapel ArtGallery in 1999.
When we met at The Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, to discuss Gary Hume’s career and the past twenty-five years lived under the YBA label, Hume’s work is showing at Jerwood’s newest South Coast gallery space as part of an Arts Council Collection solo touring exhibition called: ‘Flashback’ organised by Caroline Douglas. It was back in 1994 that the Arts Council England Collection purchased its first Gary Hume painting, Moonbeam Rising (1994) and later Four Feet in the Garden (1995). Caroline Douglas commented: “Gary Hume is one of the most important artists of his generation and Flashback gives audiences outside London the opportunity to his explore his work over two decades.”
Coming up to date I ask Gary Hume if he has a view on Artist's Resale Right:
He says: “I think they are essential for artists, as your work begins to enter and re-enter the art-world.”
“Any last comments?”, I ask, “on over two decades of being known as a YBA?”
Gary smiles: “What can I say… to this day, there hasn’t been another group like us.”
I ask, finally, if he has a pension… Hume shakes his head: “No. My pension is my paintings!”
Annabel Tilley makes drawings currently inspired by the history of English painting. Shortlisted for The Jerwood Drawing Prize, she has exhibited widely. She lectures on professional practice for artists and has written for a-n Magazine, Garageland, Arty Magazine, and contributed to The Guardian on-line. Annabel Tilley is an AIR Council Member. She co-founded Zeitgeist Arts Projects in 2012 with Rosalind Davis.
First published: a-n.co.uk August 2012
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