Everything about Gary Hume’s hyped-up, supershiny art is up-front: his love of bright color, uncomplicated composition, and simple process. His rakish paintings are a perfect fit for a time that wants no problems, that relishes surface, shallowness, and glamour. They’re right for an America whose nervous system is still psyched-out from the election and an England whose psyche is stuck on fast-forward. Hume’s work goes down easy, looks like it was easy to make, and brings to mind Stuart Davis’s declaration, “I don’t know why anyone would want to make dull pictures.”
In England Hume’s something of a made man, having appeared in Damien Hirst’s legendary 1988 exhibition, “Freeze.” He was short-listed for the 1996 Turner Prize and represented his country in the last Venice Biennale. For his fifth New York exhibition in nine years, Hume has dispensed with trendy subjects like supermodel Kate Moss, British tabloid celebs, Francis Bacon, or fellow YBAs in favor of a frothy mix of faces, flowers, and abstraction. Without the faddish subjects, all the weight is shifted to the look of his work. How these paintings bear up under this weight is the subtext of this exhibition.
A confession: On the night of Hume’s opening, catching glimpses of his new paintings through the throng, I was smitten—dazzled by the sexy modern flair of his work. These pictures seemed so right, so now, so effortless, emblematic, and easy—not just mirrors of Pop, but marvelously messed-up distorted mirrors that threw everything into a punky, glam light. The chemistry was amazing. I wanted to take them home. That night, other ways of painting seemed fussy and old-fashioned.
Infatuated, I returned to the gallery the next day. While several of his new pictures remained strong—notably the abstract florals, The First World War and Pinks; the masklike Standing Head and Sorrow; and the nicely disjointed Belarus—essences that looked so sparkling the night before had faded. The breeziness turned staid; subject matter was muddled. The colors were still hot and buzzy, but the nail-polish gloss looked like shtick. The bronze snowmen dotted about the gallery were vapid reminders of how alluring these paintings appeared amid the crowd. Suddenly, it felt like the aesthetic equivalent of the morning after a one-night stand with someone who didn’t really want to spend any more time with you but only wanted to be sexy and stunning, then go on to the next person. With Hume, all that remained was the aura of nowness.
Now is a big subject. In some ways it’s the only subject. Some artists, like Kenny Scharf or Günther Förg, get trapped in a now they never escape. For others artists, such as Piero della Francesca, Rembrandt, or Goya, now takes centuries to fill in. Sometimes it lasts forever, as with Vermeer or Velázquez’s Las Meninas. It might lay dormant for generations, as in the case of Florine Stettheimer or Lee Bontecou. Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31 is an exact rendition of what 1950 looked and felt like. Jasper Johns knew that whatever now was in 1958, it wasn’t what everyone else thought it was, which was big, abstract, and expressionistic. Warhol embalmed it. Gursky backs up and takes its picture. Raves are a way to make now last all night; Pop’s a way to make it last all day.
Which brings us back to Hume, whose pictures offer nothing deep, but come on strong with a cocksure swagger. Great in the gap between the sincere and the superficial sides of painting, Hume’s work has the virtue of being, as one writer wrote of Oasis, “infectious and obnoxious.” Like a Britpop band, Hume transforms other artists’ DNA into something fetching and new-fashioned. His paintings are peppered with vestiges of Warhol, Matisse, Ellsworth Kelly, Gilbert & George, Michael Craig-Martin, Jack Youngerman, and Trevor Winkfield, to say nothing of graphic design and ’60s psychedelia. These influences can add up to something foxy, nervy, smart, and subversive. The problem is these virtues have solidified into style.
Rob Pruitt’s recent, strangely affecting show of eight paintings of pandas rendered in sparkly glitter was gimmicky too. But where Hume creates a tension between painting, poster design, and fashion, Pruitt doesn’t seem to care about painting at all. He just makes these fruity, idiot pictures that do nothing but please, and so become weirdly deep. Originally, Hume was corrosive and seductive. However, unwilling to discard high art and eager to put aside gain and loss, he has settled for a safer, sideways journey.
The lust I felt for Hume’s work that first night was a lust for the already known—the seduction of the familiar. Hume’s art entices without being disruptive. He presents the world stripped of anything disturbing or disagreeable. But fate may be on his side. Hume’s work isn’t in front of the culture the way Warhol’s was, but he thrives in the one place where that doesn’t matter: the fast-moving vehicle that is the London art world. There, style stretches moments into isms, and the motto might be “Now lasts longer.” There, Hume’s sexy, drive-by aesthetic is—for the time being—perfectly in sync.