Gary Hume: 'Now my sculptures stand up'

The one-time YBA, and Brit-art contemporary of Emin and Hirst, has made a major breakthrough in a crucial area of his work...

There aren't many people who could put a face to Gary Hume, even if they could spot one of his glossy, candy-coloured paintings a mile off. Of the gaggle of late-Eighties Goldsmiths graduates who enjoyed the patronage of Charles Saatchi and Jay Jopling, and later became known as the YBAs (Young British Artists), Hume has never been a fully-fledged celebrity in the way that Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin have.

This could be due to his choice of medium; while his peers were busy sinking sharks in formaldehyde and immortalising their unmade beds, Hume stuck to plain old painting. He tried his hand at sculpture in the early days but says: "They kept falling over. That was my main trouble: gravity."

There was another reason why Hume seemed out of step with his Brit art contemporaries. While his friends were getting wasted at the Groucho Club, Hume was more likely to be found sitting in a playground with his young son, Joe, of whom he shared custody with a former girlfriend. Hume was determined that his son should have a dad (his own father left when he was 18 months old), though he remembers early parenthood as an "incredibly boring activity" and is in no hurry to do it again.

Joe is now 22 and studying contemporary dance in New York, and Hume, 47, is married to the artist Georgie Hopton. The couple divide their time between London and a small farm in the Catskills in upstate New York where they spend summers tending the vegetable garden and making maple syrup.

We meet in his London studio, a smart, two-storey space near Old Street. The vivid flawlessness of his paintings stands in conspicuous contrast to Hume, who is rather unkempt-looking, with his three-day stubble and frayed sweater. Grooming clearly isn't high on his to-do list, even though the precision of his work would suggest that he is, at heart, something of a perfectionist.

The studio is lined with his trademark gloss-on-aluminium paintings, all huge – around ten feet high – and propped against the wall on empty paint-pots. Downstairs there's a kitchen and living area, at the end of which sits a bookshelf stuffed with exhibition catalogues and titles on Michelangelo, de Kooning and Beuys. There are books on birds and flowers picked up on Hume's frequent trips to Charing Cross Road in search of inspiration. "If I'm feeling desperate I'll go out image-hunting," he says. "I'll go to newsagents and stand at the rack flicking through magazines or go to second-hand bookshops. And then, bit by bit, like concrete poetry, I start to realise that I am drawn to particular things and then I start wondering why that is."

Laden with images, Hume will then come back and start drawing. "One drawing demands to become a painting so I start to work on that, and then the painting might demand something else," he explains. "Then the painting might say, 'I want a companion, and the companion should be like this', so I have to find that, either by drawing it myself or locating the image."

Hume has a habit of talking about his paintings as if they are living beings with minds of their own. He has said that a dialogue that exists between him and his work, though that's not to suggest that he sits in his studio all day madly jabbering at his paintings. He is, I think, making a point about the instinctive nature of his work; his ideas come from a place in his mind that he can't quite locate and would rather not question.

Hume is currently preparing a selection of paintings and drawings for an exhibition in Salisbury, and another at the Sprüth Magers gallery in Berlin. He is also set to publish his first picture book, a self-titled coffee-table number which lays out, in no particular order, his life's work, from his famous door paintings through to his pictures of flowers, hats, babies, birds and body parts.

It was the door paintings that made Hume's name. Three of them appeared in Freeze, the 1988 exhibition of Goldsmiths graduates that caught the eye of Charles Saatchi and thus jolted British art out of its torpor.

The doors were inspired by an advertisement Hume had seen for Bupa, and were life-size replicas of the swing-doors inside St Bartholomew's Hospital in east London. One of them hangs here in the kitchen. Blank and beautiful, it's painted magnolia and blends in so well with the units that I don't notice it until Hume points it out, which is probably the point.

Hume finished the original Door series in 1992, though he continues to make the odd one for old times' sake. Did they hamper what came next? "Not really, but I'd had enough of them," he reflects. "I loved them but unless I stopped making the damned things I knew it was all I would make for ever and I would be bored out of my mind.

"They are beautiful to look at and you can have fun with them intellectually, but to actually paint them is incredibly boring. You're sanding and sanding and then painting and sanding again and painting. It is a nightmare, overwhelmingly awful. I just couldn't be that bored, not for art."

The most successful of his paintings, Hume maintains, are born from embarrassment. He opens his book and shows me a picture from 1994 called Polar Bear.

"When I was making that I was tearing my hair out and thinking: 'Oh my God, how could I draw that? It's ridiculous. What am I doing?' Looking at it now I love it, but to enable myself to make that I have to be embarrassed by it. Someone's going to come in and say: 'What is that childish nonsense, that great big blobby thing with all these pubic tendrils sticking out?' You've got to be okay with that, otherwise you are working within a consensus."

Hume loves gloss paint because of its ability to reflect light and change colour under different conditions and at different times of day. He flinches a little when I say that some might see his works as decorative. Certainly, their aesthetic qualities make them considerably more accessible than, say, one of the Chapman brothers' penis-nosed dolls, and are undoubtedly the kind of paintings that people want to own.

A few years ago Elton John asked Hume to make something for his shower at home.

"I said to him, 'of course, what a nice idea,' but inside I was thinking: 'Are you fucking mad? Of course I don't want to make anything for your shower. How insulting!' After that, every time I saw him he would say, 'how's the shower piece going?' and I'd say, 'fine.' Then, after about two years, he said: 'Look, Gary, what's happening?' So I said that I didn't want to do it after all. So he said: "Well, why don't you get a can of spray paint, write, 'Elton's a cunt' in my shower, and I'll buy it."

In the end Hume built a marble piece inspired by William Blake's gravestone for John's shower. It was a huge success, and led to him making more for exhibition. "It was a problem-solving exercise – how do you create something beautiful and worthwhile for a shower-room? – that resulted in me making something that I would never have thought of in other circumstances. So I was pleased. But I still wrote 'Elton is a cunt' on the back of it. Ha ha!"

Hume grew up in Kent, the fourth of five children. His mother read a lot of poetry and would take the children on day trips to London galleries. "I remember my feet aching and thinking, 'will this ever end?" he recalls. At school he wasn't exactly filled with encouragement by teachers who told him he would never amount to anything. "At the time I thought: 'You're offering me a passport to a world I don't want to be a citizen of, it seems overwhelming dull."

Hume left school with three O-levels, and a vague hankering to make films. "I went to Soho every day knocking on the doors of editing suites. I got a job as an assistant film editor, which lasted for a few years but I found writing incredibly difficult, and I thought: 'How am I going to make a film if I can't write?' I didn't really comprehend that someone else would do that bit."

After two years he fell out with one of the directors, was fired and returned to Kent. He worked as a petrol-pump attendant for six months before getting a job making life-insurance- trading films.

"That was awful, truly dreadful. I realised that I had to do something where I could be in charge of what I was doing, so I thought then that maybe I could do pictures." He enrolled in evening classes in art at the Working Men's College in Camden, London, and later signed up for an art foundation course.

After a year at Liverpool Polytechnic, Hume transferred to Goldsmiths, where he found himself working amid a group of hugely confident and like-minded people. His tutors later said that there was a chemical reaction between the students that was unprecedented and very exciting.

It was a competitive yet supportive environment that Hume found thrilling. "Everyone was simply trying to find a way of making their own work and finding their own voice. When they found that voice, and made something good, you'd say: 'How brilliant. I wish I'd done that myself, but how brilliant.'"

After the fabled Freeze exhibition, Saatchi bought two of Hume's door paintings and commissioned four more. By the mid-Nineties, Hume and friends were the toast of Britain's cultural scene and were rubbing shoulders with pop stars, film-makers, writers and actors.

"My wife thinks the Brit-art thing is a load of rubbish, but that's because she wasn't in it," he grins. "I wasn't out and about so much because of my son but it was definitely an exciting time. You had a bit of money in your pocket and you felt that there was this power, a sense of entitlement. It gave us confidence and for a while that was nice."

Since then Brit-art's enfants terribles have become contented figures of the establishment. Hume was the first of the group to be welcomed into the Royal Academy in 2001, having already represented Britain in the Venice Biennale in 1999. Since then his old chums – with whom he is still in touch – have branched out. Emin writes newspaper columns; Hirst runs a multimedia empire; Sam Taylor-Wood makes feature films. Meanwhile Hume has stuck doggedly to his original vision. His palette has darkened, and he has even started dabbling in sculpture again (and has, finally, found a way of keeping them upright) but his aesthetic hasn't altered radically since his YBA days.

"I really love making things and I don't really have the confidence to do much else," Hume reflects with apparent contentment.

"It's the great pleasure and pain of life that you really are stuck as yourself and however much you wish you were capable of making someone else's work, you can't. So you don't."

'Hume' is published by Other Criteria. Gary Hume: New Work is at the New Art Centre, Roche Court, Salisbury until 4 May (Sculpture.uk.com). He is also exhibiting at Sprüth Magers gallery in Berlin from 2 July - September - www.Spruethmagers.com

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat