Monday, 5 March 2012

Gary Hume, Flashback, Leeds

While London's Gagosian Galleires put on their arm of a worldwide showing of Damien Hirst's Spot Paintings, Leeds have contrived their own YBA retrospective with a modest exhibition of the work of Gary Hume. Gary Hume's current work is also available in London at the moment but Flashback at the Leeds Art Gallery offers an opportunity to see work over a longer period, including the hospital door series that first brought him to prominence.

It's that series that I headed to first. It's good to see them for real. Reproduction of Hume's work is particularly misrepresentative, given the surface of the acrylic and gloss paints that he uses, the aluminium on which many are rendered and the surface peccadilloes in each painting. The shapes of the panels and windows built into the doors are all that bring feature or focus to the paintings - all are paintings of double doors but none have marks in the paint or the canvas to shows the central division. Brush strokes are virtually indistinguishable. Instead, the pastel colours throw themselves from the surface of the paintings in an emancipated act of tonal 3D, even more alive than the suggested Manga-like anthropomorphism of the vaguely face-like features of the fittings.

Colour may be the issue with these paintings but it is the surface that is half the story with the other pieces on show. Hume's manipulation of the paint is changeable. There are brushstrokes in a piece like Mud, culminating in crests as swirls of paint meet one another: Hume has actually painted a number of these with a lick of white to highlight them. The effect is dynamic. But this isn't always the case, as the earlier Snowman, a piece caught somewhere between Matisse and Kazimir Malevich's reductive blocks of colour has no surface interest. A colossal Barn Door, rendered in scarlet is in fact the opposite of the hospital doors - a solid block of colour, its features are only discernible through the imposition of familiar marks in the paint.

The confrontational soul of the YBA lives on in a piece that demands discussion on the wall opposite the  hospital doors. The Cunt seems at first to simply be a crude, reductive picture of female genitalia. However, immediately there are questions. Which way up? What's the perspective? With two undulating areas of paint, one pink, one deep brown around a central pastel flange its also impossible to work out the ethnicity of the subject. I found myself thinking of cubist explosions of 3D, taking the contour and depth-of-field interest of a subject like a woman's groin and rendering it as a flat surface. It's in this that Hume's technique comes into its own, where the figurative information in a more straightforward painting is rendered in colour, construction and the ambiguous appeal of the surface. Such is the nature of Four Feet In The Garden, the picture being used to publicise the exhibition. From a distance the picture looks like a Rorschach Test, with only closer inspection showing the figurative outlines of the (eight!) feet worked into the surface. The blazing and deeply dark colours of the composition suggest something less cosy than barefooted friends standing together on a suburban lawn - the formal oddity of the grass at the bottom of the painting confirms these suspicions.

Large, modern paintings that gradually force you into a relationship with them, Hume's paintings have a surprising subtlety that has grown out of the crack in the firmament between the modernism of Matisse and the Impressionism of Bonnard.

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