Can you tell what this is? It is Michael Jackson’s nose on Kate Moss’s face, only the outline of the face is a barely visible indent in the thick industrial gloss paint. I needed the guide-booklet to tell me that – as I needed the title to inform me that ‘Nicola as an Orchid’ (below right) was meant to be either a person or a flower. I hadn’t realised that Gary Hume was so abstract. Hume’s name is familiar but until now I had never seen such a broad range of his work; his trademark use of enamel gloss paint on aluminium is immediately recognisable but beyond that much of the subject matter was unexpected.
Tate Britain seems to sit on the fence here, claiming that the Hume show is not a retrospective as it’s twin exhibition on Patrick Caulfield clearly is, and deliberately not creating too thematic or chronological a hang. Yet it is not a show of new work either, though in scale it is similar to that which a gallery like the White Cube might put on. This is not to its detriment; having set Hume and Caulfield alongside – whatever one’s thoughts on this pairing might be – it is interesting to have an in-depth visual study of the work of an artist still in the midst of his career set alongside a more familiar retrospective of one whose career has come to an end.
Both certainly use colour very skilfully in large flat planes with sharply defined edges. Hume’s combination of aluminium and gloss paint creates such a smooth and even effect that in some images it is hard to spot the hand of the artist at all; the outlines seem to be created by raised ridges of paint, an organic part of the painting’s surface – rather like the veins on a plant’s leaf (as in ‘Tulips’, left). However, there are several images – ‘Green Nicola’ and ‘Tony Blackburn’ (below right) – in which the brushstroke seems to have been deliberately emphasised, as if to remind one of the actual process of creation. And sometimes lines are scratched into the paint, revealing the artist’s hand.
Both Hume and Caulfield insist on their paintings as two dimensional objects, disallowing their subject matter to exist as anything other than an image of itself, subjected to the artist’s distortions and reinterpretations on an abstract level. Hume to a greater degree; his paintings are first and foremost careful compositions of colour planes, the subject matter secondary. Or perhaps not secondary, but adding to the purely aesthetic an intellectual or emotional engagement. Some darker, more sombre compositions, or the saccharine, glutinous pools of colour in ‘The Cradle’ turn out to be about birth and parenthood, which instantly changes one’s perspective; they become suddenly disturbing, morally ambiguous. Elsewhere Hume challenges accepted notions of beauty, as in the image I began with, entitled ‘Beautiful’. By using such deliberately artificial media, and isolating or abstracting elements of what Western society considers the epitome of beauty, Hume re-packages the ‘beautiful’, and serves it up to us in a state that demands us to question our conformity to cultural standards in an image-obsessed world.
Patrick Caulfield might likewise appear to offer a simplified expression of everyday objects, but he too questions our perception. It is unsurprising to learn of his general association with pop art, as this affinity is the most immediate impression. The flat, bright planes of colour, the clean and precise technique mirroring the manufactured consumerist objects that he depicts; all pin him within the artistic culture of the sixties in which he emerged. Caulfield, however, claimed early Cubism as his heritage; knowing this, one immediately sees it everywhere – not least in his early still life (above) where the jug, if not subjected to such rigorous visual analysis as a Braque or Picasso, still questions the shape and solidity of the object, creating a formal tension with the two-dimensionality of the picture plane. Next door to this there is a portrait of Juan Gris, just to make the point – though this portrait of his idol, a cartoon figure on a flat yellow ground surrounded by odd zig-zagged lines, couldn’t be less Cubist.
In other early works, Fernand Leger seems the more appropriate reference; the heavily outlined, machine-made forms echo Leger’s famous construction scenes full of cones and cylinders, pipes and girders, though without even his nominal sense of volume or perspective, and without the busy-ness of faceted colour or implied movement. There is an emptiness and essential lack of any real subject at all in paintings like ‘The Well’ (below) and ‘The Bend in the Road’. Strangely perhaps, I found myself thinking that Caulfield must have been a fan of contemporary cinema, as these paintings seemed almost like stills from an action film, encapsulating that tense moment before a speeding car bursts into view around the Bend in the Road, or the hovering camera suggests the (probably sinister) narrative import of the well, yet to be revealed.
As his career progresses, Caulfield’s images become more complex. He moves from isolated objects to interiors, his stark black outlines allowing a basic perspective – though this is almost overpowered by the formal aesthetic of graphic patterns and saturated colours. Caulfield is selective in his use of colours, in the sense that objects which should be differentiated by colour are left uniform, allowing the artist’s chosen focus point to jump out in an exaggeratedly acidic hue. Often this point of interest is the source of light, and the tones used emphasise its artificiality (though in one interior, below right, the light comes from a Lichtenstein-esque ray of sun in solid black and blue stripes). The stark modern interiors with their silent and alienating atmosphere recall the American diners of Edward Hopper, recreated in pop art style and with any human element disposed of entirely.
The next real development in Caulfield’s work came in the 1970s – to which we pass with a brief footstep – and it shows him experimenting with trompe l’oeil. The fundamental idea of combining different levels of reality within the picture plane once again shows Caulfield’s indebtedness to analytical Cubism. In some works a ‘realistic’ wallpaper that could almost be collage appears within the otherwise cartoonishly simplified interior typical of Caulfield. Elsewhere, ‘real’ plates of food appear on painted tabletops, and ‘real’ flowers grow in the gardens of painted apartment block.
In ‘After Lunch’ (below) an alpine landscape is represented in equally detailed photorealism, the only point of colour in an otherwise uniformly blue painting (except for the rudimentary goldfish, that is). Such insertions complicate the status of reality and illusion. Here, the landscape appears to be a framed poster, a 2D image within the ‘real’ space of a modernist interior; yet this interior is in fact a flat composition of lines on a canvas, undifferentiated even by colour, while the illusion of perspective in the image within it demands its comprehension as point of ‘reality’, viewed through a window.
In his late works, Caulfield’s characteristic outline disappears. He becomes interested in trying to depict perspective using light effects, these described with planes of modulated colour. The effect is dramatic, with strong diagonals cutting through the image, against which secondary elements such as lamps and vases are silhouetted. All that cannot be delineated in this way is left out, resulting in an image distilled to its essentials. At the same time Caulfield continues his playful trickery with trompe l’oeil effects, the glass doors to this late interior (below) painted in perfect simulation of our ‘reality’ but leading through into the artist’s parallel, disorientating world of colour and light beyond. And so we end behind the swing doors where we began – by pushing through the REAL, solid, functioning swing doors that lead into the exhibition, and which are in fact a ‘work of art’ by Gary Hume. Confusing.