Tate Britain, London
5 June – 1 September 2013
by CELIA WHITE
Vague as this claim may sound, the two painters’ aesthetic contiguity is undeniable, even if unintentional: flatly coloured decorative surfaces imbued with potential narrative, thinly layered. The viewer scrabbles for meaning and is often left wanting, sated only by saturated hues presented in rich blocks with dark outline. The pairing of Caulfield (1936-2005) and Hume (born 1962) is an act of visual and historical alignment, and, as such, it does dictate the nature of their relationship – indeed, it dictates the very fact that the relationship exists. And yet Tate displays an impressive level of art-historiographical sensitivity in maintaining a curatorial distinction between the two artists: their work is presented in separate gallery complexes; both exhibitions have their own internal logic, with works selected and positioned as a means of exploring that particular artist’s oeuvre; there is not a scrap of explanatory wall text in sight; and the exhibition guide for the two shows, though bound into one little volume, keeps the artists distinct editorially.
It makes sense, therefore, to consider the two retrospective separately: to see Hume by the power of his own (lime)light. The catalogue devotes inch upon inch of text to the question of form versus content, abstraction versus reality – in Hume’s work, a fine boundary that is intelligently revealed at intervals throughout the show. Beautiful (2002) is a cool pink tondo bearing the partly discernible traces of a woman’s face; her nose, painted in deep black at the centre, is the painting’s only bold visual hook. Likewise, in Two Minds (2001), the painting carries a certain enigmatic figuration whereby the woman’s outline is clearly visible yet her features are effectively washed over by an afterthought of yellow paint. She remains liminal, precognitive, a figment as opposed to a figure.
What Hume offers us is abstraction punctuated with a selective reality – a nose, an eyebrow, a gaping mouth – as if he has taken scissors to threadbare cloth and placed it over his sitters, revealing clearly only the areas that he wishes to represent. It is difficult not to see the ghostly in such paintings, as well as the sexual, the latter implied by this technique of masking out, of patching and restricting, of fetishising elements of form while leaving others to languish. Beyond the sexual, though, there is a host of emotions paraded sub-surface: while the two figures in Young Mother and Child (2001) conjure a centuries-old painterly motif, there is a muted sickness at play in the combination of black, deep green and red, and in the almost strangulatory embrace in which the mother holds the infant. Her scratchy features, her alien baldness, and the child’s lazy-eyed submission imply a complex and threatening relationship that is all the more haunting for its unintelligibility to the outsider.
Frustration is not uncommonly felt in front of Hume’s paintings. Their resistant surfaces, made up of shiny house paint on aluminium, seemingly deny entry, pushing themselves outward into the viewer’s space at the same time that hinted narratives pull him or her in. Further, their colour-driven aesthetic is redolent of near-blindness: patches of tone that can carry only estimated meaning. In some cases, Hume puts this effect to the good. The Whole World (2011) is a lustrous pink flower head levitating in a block of deep purple. The paint’s thickness has the appearance of being poured in between the looping lines formed by scraps of aluminium, a technique reminiscent of the stained-glass window. Like the window, too, they carry narratives that compel one to look at, rather than through, their surfaces; yet, unlike stained glass, they are opaque, intensely confrontational, offering no means of escape.
Hume’s use of gloss paint gives each painting the quality of a ready-made object: of plasticky, ever-new things manufactured en masse, carrying little that is personal until ownership and use bestow human memories and feelings on their ignorant forms. In a similar way, we are asked as viewers to take these paintings under our wings, giving them a purpose or a psychological make-up that reflects our own. The most direct and impressive way that Hume foists this on us is through fear. Back of a Snowman (White) (2000) and American Tan XI (2006-7) are two anti-portraits, faceless but with implied animation. The snowman, the only sculpture in the show, is completely lacking in features, such that its audience only ever encounters blankness when viewing it in the round. While American Tan XI (2006-7) presents us with a two-dimensional equivalent, conjuring the inherent frustration felt when a companion turns his or her back to us, Back of a Snowman (White) introduces the third dimension, and with it the deeply uncanny, meanwhile evoking a child’s pre-developmental assumption that something that can’t be seen any longer is not there. What Hume proves is that the removal of an element of normality is often more frightening than the addition of one: that a smoothed-over, mouthless face is filled with a greater horror than any ghoul or monster because of its proximity to reality, its inherent plausibility.
We are left with a curious combination of the dark, unsettled soul of the contemporary Gothic and the light-hearted, carefree aesthetic introduced by the readymade. The glossy sheen of these paintings is decoration with depth; sections cut from the walls of a hundred disturbing domestic environments. Yet the Gothic prevails, particularly in works such as The Moon (2002), in which the bird’s sinister, eyeless countenance could easily scream “Nevermore” from its muted beak. The hot red eyes and little white mouth of the infant in Baby (1994-5), and the work’s title scrawled backwards across the picture plane, present a division between a parent’s world and that of its child. Beyond the simple explanation stated in the catalogue that this piece “suggests the anxieties associated with becoming a parent”,2 the painting looks deeper than this, evoking demon children and infantile ugliness (which, granted, are possibilities probably feared by prospective parents), but focusing more compellingly on the nature of consciousness itself, on dependency, on the development of intellectual and emotional intelligence and a sense of self.
Each of these features of Hume’s paintings of the past 25 years – opacity, surface, a fear of the unknown, abstraction laced with figuration – are experienced in this exhibition by viewers even before they enter the gallery space. Calling on a series of paintings of hospital doors that the artist first made in the early 1990s and displayed again in 2008 (none of which are shown in this exhibition), Hume made a work especially for this Tate show, entitled How to Paint a Door, in which he painted the actual door to the gallery with a pink and purple version of one of the originals. Described in the guide as a “modified gallery door”, this piece is at once a readymade and an intervention. Hume envisioned his early door paintings as presenting to the viewer the classic question about representation conjured by René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe (1928-9), prompting them to ask: “Is it a representation of a door, or an actual door that doesn’t function?’.3 Here the “real” door, layered with a false one, denies the original door paintings their premise: it is a representation of a door, while also being a door.
It is a simple conceit, and yet it carries within it the possible key to Hume’s enigma of figuration locked within abstraction. The painted gallery door’s representational status is not the mechanism for this (we know, after all, that this is an actual door). Rather, it offers an analogy for the experience of viewing each of Hume’s works. A door’s opacity is eventually countered by its complete opposite: access to what is within. Yet before the flat facade of that huge panel, its stubborn impersonality, we can only imagine what is beyond, much as we can only second-guess the meanings behind Hume’s aluminium and gloss. Our imagination, set free, inevitably runs wild. We flounder and retreat.