Rising to the surface

At an exhibition of Gary Hume’s work, Anna Andersson decides that his bold, unpretentious style is a fitting epilogue to a century of artistic experimentation.

Angels will occupy the lower hall of the Whitechapel Gallery from the end of November. In bright colours on large aluminium panels, they will safeguard a new exhibition of contemporary artist Gary Hume’s most recent work.

Hume is working with curator Judith Nesbitt on his first major London exhibition for four years. In contemporary style, he has created images of angels, birds and his close friends. Most images are traced from magazines on to acetate, then projected on to studio walls, retraced and painted in household gloss paint.

His passion for such paint, used straight from the can, is a remnant from the early days of his career, when he only painted life-sized doors. “Doors are generally painted in gloss paint, so I felt a picture of a door should be done in the same material,” says Hume.

Hume uses colours from urban life, from products, cars and advertising billboards. The shine of the gloss paint strikes a chord with the viewer, but also reflects the artist himself. “All you ever get from me is the surface. My art has no ideas.”

Curator Judith Nesbitt is letting the large open gallery space remain in its natural state to enhance the radiance of the paintings. Together with the artist she is bringing a surplus of pictures to the exhibition hall, where final editing will take place.

As a graduate at London’s Goldsmiths’ School of Art in the late Eighties, when the school was associated with some of Britain’s most interesting artists, Hume came to prominence early in his career. He took part in the 1988 Freeze show, organised by his fellow student Damien Hirst, and was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1996. As a representative for Britain at the Venice Biennial earlier this year, his Water Paintings series revealed a new fascination with line, and a move from earlier more impersonal paintings of tabloid celebrities to intimate portraits of friends.

The series at Whitechapel depicts Hume’s female friends stepping out of their clothes and into water through shimmering surfaces. Superimposed lines from heads, eyes, arms and breasts reveal, yet paradoxically hide, the naked bodies of his subjects.

The process of layering images continues in his Nest Paintings, where gathering birds create a tangled mass of silhouettes and colours. In the simple storybook image Bird on a Branch, a single bird seems to have been transferred from the previous picture to become a selected detail of a larger whole. Hume has an ability to surprise even his most devoted audience, constantly moving between abstract and figurative art. Cerith celebrates his use of big isolated areas of bright colours, which give his work a pop art flavour.

A wall of a thousand painted leaves adds an autumnal feel to the exhibition. These leaves will be sold to visitors of the show. Oswaldo Macia’s Universal Concert of Birds No. 2 – a symphony of 2000 bird songs – will accompany the exhibition.

Displayed at the end of a century which has seen tremendous challenges in the act of painting, and art in general, Hume’s work comes across as intelligible, clear and straightforward.

After Jackson Pollock’s action painting, Lucio Fontana’s canvas slashing and Yves Klein’s use of naked girls as paint brushes, it’s refreshing to see Hume reach his simple aim: to make beautiful paintings.

Gary Hume’s exhibition is at the Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX until 23 January 2000. Admission to the exhibition is free

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