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Artist interview

Interview with Gary Hume, king of the narrative-free form: “I want to abolish ‘me’ in my art”

Hume talks painting, why he relishes a little melancholy, and what he learned from working with Stella McCartney

One of Brit Art’s original Goldsmith’s gang, Gary Hume first achieved acclaim with the shiny household gloss “Door” paintings which he exhibited alongside his college compadres in the now legendary “Freeze” show of 1988. Then there was his Damascus Road moment which has also entered YBA mythology when, around 1993, Hume seemed to scupper a burgeoning career by forsaking the doors and adopting a distinctively fluid, hard-edged figuration which then made him famous all over again. Sell-out shows on both sides of the Atlantic, a Turner Prize nomination and the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale all followed—and last year he was even elected a Royal Academician. However, unlike some of his contemporaries, Hume has never been one to dance in the spotlight, preferring to let his work grab the attention. This year there have been forays into different media including designs for Stella McCartney, and a curated room of edgily eclectic artworks from across a range of generations and nationalities which livened up the RA’s famously moribund Summer Exhibition—with one of his own bronze “Snowman” sculptures making an incongruous appearance in the Academy’s courtyard.

Painting remains Hume’s main concern, and The Art Newspaper visited his Spitalfields studio as he prepared for his first solo show in London since his Whitechapel exhibition three years ago.

The Art Newspaper: Are these all new paintings?

Gary Hume: All of this work is from last September. But one [painting] doesn’t really come before the other, they move around the studio: behind there is “don’t look at me”; that pile there is “don’t look at me at all”, when they go on that wall it’s “look at me in peripheral vision” this wall is “work on me” and down there is “all finished”. I keep changing them: sometimes they pop up to “finished” and then have to come back again...

TAN: How do you know when they are finished?

GH: It really does just say it. They have different stages, sometimes they say it straight away—I just know that that’s absolutely fine—but those four paintings over there, I’m still working on those and they’re saying that there’s still too much of my attempt to make them in them...

TAN: So when you feel that you are fully absent, that’s when they are complete ?

GH: Yes. When they don’t care any more about me, when they have absolutely no interest in me at any point and they’re just doing their thing.

TAN: I know that you don’t like to give any explanation of what your paintings are about—is that another way of letting them “do their thing?”

GH: I feel very much that a painting works when I’m not involved with it any more: that’s when a painting is finished, when it doesn’t care what I think and it’s very satisfied with its own state. So I’m as much of a viewer of them once they’re finished, because I don’t know who they are—they really are like they’ve always existed and they are real people—even the flowers. They are all real things that I have to look at like anybody else.

TAN: Is that also why they are so smooth and shiny, with no gestural brushstrokes to give a hotline to the artist’s psyche?

GH: I don’t want any of the “me” in them. Obviously I know that they all are me and if you don’t like them I’ll be very upset, not just because of them but because it will mean that you—don’t like what I like to look at—they do define me. But with paintings that show “today I’m in a good mood”, “tomorrow I’m in a bad mood, and this is my gesture” I just look at them and I see the artist—and I’m not interested in seeing the artist, I’m just interested in seeing the picture.

TAN: A lot of your paintings—and several here—have blanked-out eyes. In a way, this lack of eye contact acts to blank out any narrative...

GH: I can’t stand narrative. What I love in the process of making my paintings is when I disappear, and that act of disappearing. This isn’t just me the artist disappearing, it’s me the viewer, I just disappear and I don’t know any more what I’m thinking. Rather than trying to follow a story I’m not even following a route, I’m just looking at it and nothing disturbs my disappearance—there’s no strident message that says “you must go this way.” I’m very pleased when I just sit there and disappear and suddenly realise half an hour has passed and I’ve not been disappointed...

TAN: Plants, angels, Old Masters, celebrities, friends, pictures in magazines—your subject matter is very wide. How do you choose what to paint?

GH: It’s sort of like a recognising process where I recognise my painting before it’s painted. So I see something and I go, “Oh, there’s my painting, I can paint that” and it doesn’t really matter what it is, because I can paint it. I can already see that it belongs to me and all I have to do is paint it. I think that, if you like painting, you should be able to paint anything—you just paint it in a way that makes anything into something.

TAN: I see here you’ve made a new door painting—and it’s wearing a smile. There’s been so much written about your early door paintings and how you gave up painting them; is this about you reclaiming all that mythology and re-making the doors on your current terms?

GH: Yes: just saying that they’re my bloody doors and if I want to paint one, I can. And if I want to paint one with rosy cheeks and a smile, I’ll have rosy cheeks and a smile—or I’ll just have a plain old door...

TAN: It’s a very ambiguous smile.

GH: It’s so thin...

TAN: With the earlier doors people made a big deal about their blankness and their relationship to Minimalism, end games and all that—but this door is full of very different readings: it could be a smiley, a schematic female nude, a double door held shut with a loopy chain or just an abstract—it’s as chatty as the others were silent.

GH: Yes, there’s definitely somewhere to go with it...

TAN: It’s also a strange colour—a sort of elastoplast-pinkish, greyish, brownish non-colour.

GH: Sort of like a cheerful institution. You’re never really cheerful when you’re in an institution; however much they try and make it cheerful, you know that you’re actually very depressed, sitting on this screwed-down seat...

TAN: You’ve also done works on canvas; that’s a new departure from painting on aluminium...

GH: They are drawings. I’ve been wanting to draw for ages but I always hate what I draw on and what it looks like, it never gives me any satisfaction. Then I saw some Picasso drawings with bits of charcoal on the canvas so I thought I’d give it a go—and so I did these plain old charcoal on bits of white canvas which I liked, and then I made a mistake, so I was just rubbing it all out with charcoal and I liked the surface of that, so I did a whole bunch of drawings with charcoal and then I fixed it, and then I did more charcoal on top, and fixed it, and more charcoal on top and fixed it - and of course the whole bloody thing disappeared. So then I had to go and buy a ton of different coloured chalks that would, when I fixed them, go round about the colour of raw charcoal—the colour of charcoal before you fix it...

TAN: So what I’m seeing is a background that looks like paint, but is charcoal, with a drawing that looks like charcoal but is, in fact, chalk. That certainly keeps the fluidity on the move. I imagine that drawing is much more tricky to make into a narrative-free zone: we all love drawings because they seem to give a more immediate insight into the artist’s thought processes, and so it’s quite a challenge for you to do a vanishing act in this medium...

GH: I’m not saying anything because it’s an ongoing concern—so all I can say is, yes.

TAN: Looking round the studio, these new works seems to have a bit of an edge; there’s something vaguely unsettling about them, and it’s not just because a lot of the colours are darker than before...

GH: I don’t mean it as a methodology for all this group of work, but I was thinking when I started painting these pictures of those very small promises in your life that never come true, things you can’t really complain about or get upset about, but when you remember them you’re a little sad that you aren’t the greatest beauty in the world, or the most famous artist, or that you haven’t got that extra half inch that your mother always said you’d have—those little promises, those tiny disappointments of life...

TAN: So there’s a hint of melancholia, perhaps?

GH: The thing is, I don’t really like melancholia. I like every now and then having melancholia, but I like it because there’s so much self love in it. I really feel like I exist when I’ve got melancholia. I don’t really want them to be melancholic because I don’t want them to have that type of ego about them. So they’re more like a very small sadness, when you just drift off and your husband or whatever goes: “Are you all right?” and you go, “no, I’m fine” and you’ve just been somewhere...

TAN: You recently collaborated with Stella McCartney; she put your drawings of figures onto shirts and dresses. Did you enjoy working in such a different medium ?

GH: I was intrigued by doing it, but I didn’t take enough care. The whole point of doing these things is that you should become totally involved in it but of course, Stella’s the fashion designer and so she wants to do that bit—so I was just having a little look at fashion and seeing what fashion does. She gave me these things and I drew directly on them. Some of them were really, really lovely—others weren’t so nice. Also, fashion is done by huge groups of people—there’s tons of them, it’s really unbelievable—and what I do is done by myself and I have an assistant two days a week, so it’s a very different world. Although I really enjoyed the experience of doing fashion when I look at a tee shirt, I can’t lose myself in it—I don’t think I’ll disappear for half an hour looking at myself in a tee shirt...

TAN: You’ve worked in other media—there’s a new bronze snowman sculpture in the White Cube Show—but you remain resolutely a painter. What is it that’s so special about making paintings?

GH: Painting itself is a still thing, and I just love that. There’s a moment of stillness—even if it’s a Jackson Pollock—there’s a stillness that I completely adore. That’s why narrative is hideous because it equals time, I like the fact that painting is just as is: save as.

Biography

1962 Born, Kent, England, 1988 Graduated, Goldsmith’s College, London. Lives and works in London

Exhibitions include: 2002 Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London; Remix: Contemporary Art and Pop, Tate Liverpool; 2001 Matthew Marks Gallery, New York; Century City, Tate Modern, London; 2000 Fondació “la Caixa”, Barcelona; Culturgest, UMA Casa de Mundo, Lisbon; 1999 Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; British Pavilion, XLVIII Venice Biennale of Art; 1997 Matthew Marks Gallery, New York; 1996 Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht; XXIII Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil; Turner Prize Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London; 1995 Jay Jopling/White Cube, London; Kunsthalle, Bern; Institute of Contemporary Art, London; 1994 Matthew Marks Gallery, New York; 1993 Galerie Tanja Grünert, Cologne; exhibited one new painting, “Madonna & Child, Sarah Lucas‚ bedsit, Holloway Road, London” 1992 Daniel Weinburg Gallery, Santa Monica; Matthew Marks Gallery, New York. 1991 Galerie Tanja Grünert, Cologne; Broken English: Serpentine Gallery, London; 1990 The British Art Show 1990 Karsten Schubert 1989 Karsten Schubert, London. 1988: Freeze. Part II, Surrey Docks, London.

Currently showing: White Cube, London (2 September-2 October)