Into the wild with a high-flying YBA

An exhibition of new work by Gary Hume sees him exploring the natural world in his usual pared-back, objective way

Indifference is a curious sort of non-emotion to set your artistic stall on, but it’s the one that Gary Hume – the British painter who emerged from Goldsmiths alongside his fellow YBAs in the early 1990s – has been attracted to for many years.

Hume’s early paintings, which were collected by Charles Saatchi, were of hospital swing doors painted to scale in a variety of colour combinations – sometimes intense shades of dark red or deep blue, sometimes safe neutrals such as celadon, grey and magnolia, and most often a combination of the two registers of tone. Hospital doors, as Hume has explained, are utterly indifferent objects. Though they are neat and cleanly designed, modernist and functional in their combinations of pushplates, kickplates and windows, they do not care whether you are enduring the worst tragedy of your life, or experiencing the most joyous day.

Through the people pass, Girl Boy, Boy Girl, as one of Hume’s painting titles puts it, alongside those less happy incantations: cancer, accident, not going to make it. There at the beginning, there at the end, at those moments in which it hardly matters whether you are rich or poor, a winner or a loser – they are the ceremonial ribbon cut at the start of life, and the finish line broken at the end.

Though concerns with neutrality have remained, to an extent, in Hume’s work over the years, his latest exhibition, The Indifferent Owl, which takes place over two of White Cube’s galleries, returns to the pared-back colours of the artist’s earlier work, and to its shoulder-shrugging objectivity. The inspiration for the title of the exhibition, and the painting it is named after, was a hooting owl that the artist heard outside the window of his home in upstate New York, where he lives for several months of the year. In the morning, outside, he saw a deflated party balloon, and imagined the magnificent owl, watching the balloon deflate, not curiously, but with an utter lack of response to the human joy of celebrating birth.

The painting itself, which hangs in a central position at the Mason’s Yard gallery on the ground floor, is a circular piece in four colours of household gloss paint on aluminium. The lines of the image, almost like a drawing, are made up from thickened, built-up ridges of paint, like mountainous regions marking the borders between countries or tectonic plates that have crashed together to create seams and furrows. The paintings are created flat, evinced by their glossy, lacquerish surfaces and also by the dripmarks that remain on the sides of the canvases. The owl and the majority of the branch on which it sits are rendered in a rather putrid shade of green, the colour of mulch and of the kind of pleather chairs found (well, why not?) in hospital waiting rooms. This shade sits ill-at-ease with the others that swim behind it: the sky behind the owl is divided into a section of lilac and one of baby blue, while some of the leaves have been picked out in the soft shade of vanilla ice cream. This chromatic uneasiness is repeated throughout the exhibition.

Even without the title it is true that the owl seems indifferent, and this is to do with its rendering in only one flat shade of colour. Hume has found a way to make colours and shapes render indifference, by their lack of variation. It’s a small point to make, but it takes a long time to make points in painting.

It’s true, too, that in Hume’s paintings which focus on the natural world there’s a sort of colour inversion going on. Often, the element that we would expect to be the star of the show is rendered in the drabbest colour, while the background is bright and seductive. In two paintings of flora, Morning and Grey Leaves (both 2011), the plants are grey while the background is brighter and fuller. Morning’s blackberry stalks are putty coloured, with blackish berries, rendering a powder- blue background synthetic and seductive in comparison. There’s certainly something depressive about this – it is as though we are looking at things that we expect to find wondrous and marvellous but which appear disappointing: as faded and worn-out as an old bus station.

There’s a sexual element to some of Hume’s paintings, too, which is somewhat confusing and often never reveals itself absolutely. A painting called Horizon is a mass of peachy skintone gloss. Lines cleave through the painting, centring on a dark, dusky pink shape that looks like a vulva. At the centre of this shape is a small section of aluminium that has been left bare of any paint, so it looks like a hole. It’s difficult to work out however, how all of the lines and shapes would fit together to be a part of a woman at all.

One is faced with a similar conundrum downstairs, in a suite of very large works that Hume has named Paradise Paintings. Most of these feature a blue baby bird on a pale pink background, each with an alarmingly needy red beak and a hungry eye. It reminds me of the story of the baby cuckoo’s gape – so big, red and persuasive that other mother birds can’t resist feeding it. And yet, with a sideways glance, these could also be the splayed legs of women, a sort of abstract, mixed-up version of bright red, female genitalia. Things seem anything but indifferent down here.

A set of limestone sculptures has also sprung up, buds on stalks that seem to be straining to live; some of them have glossy, beady eyes. The birds, the buds and the sexual connotations of both, have a strange sort of biological indifference to them.

Over at Hoxton Square, Hume’s source material and subject matter is a little more mixed and the exhibition has less focus. A large painting, The Playground, depicts a confusing tangle of climbing frames and railings, all rendered in ominousblack – the only colour on the painting is two stripes of cerise and two moonlike spots of white, appearing to anchor the top corners. Three young, identical girls stare out from another large painting, Six Poles, their faces rendered in dark, indifferent purple, and registering strangely blank. Only their plaits are picked out in bright, nursery school shades. Like Hume’s birds and plants, these faces of children point to something lost and missed – a deep disappointment that shows playgrounds, plants and youth already slipped off to somewhere unreachable. It’s as though we could see them, for a second, like an owl looking at a birthday party, staring at them with utter indifference.

Gary Hume: The Indifferent Owl, White Cube, Hoxton Square, London N1, and White Cube Mason’s Yard, London SW1 ( to 25 February