Arts: Pretty vacant: a fine line in glossy charm

Gary Hume works in gloss housepaint on aluminium. The appeal is elusive, yet his work stands out at this year's Edinburgh Festival. Tom Lubbock wonders why
Click to follow
Gary Hume's paintings are now the very height and squeak of fashion. Bright, sharp, flat, polished, everybody seems to like them. They were shown - still are showing - in the British pavilion at this summer's Venice Biennale. They will be shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in London this autumn. They've just gone on show at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh. I'm not too confident how I'll feel in five years' time, but for the moment I like them too.

All the work in this Edinburgh show is 1999, spanking new. Someone who'd went before I did said it was a total embarrassment, the come-uppance of fashionability: with so much recent stuff gone to Venice, the artist had been churning it out indiscriminately to meet the demands of yet another show. But that just made me wonder whether I could really tell a good Gary Hume from a bad one. The thing we like about them - isn't it a kind of trick or charm or hook that they all have in common?

On the other hand, I've never quite worked out what that hook was.

Hume is mid-thirties (British and ex-Young) and his paintings now are not very different from the those he's been doing for the last five or so years. Mainly they go like this. He starts with a found image, a magazine photo, a famous painting, usually an image of an animal, a plant or a person; in this show, girls' faces, birds and orchids predominate. Then he traces it over, translating it into a few simple outlined shapes, shapes often arbitrarily singled out from the original image - if it's a face, say, the mouth may get outlined but not the eyes. The crops and compositions are pretty casual too. Recently he's been superimposing several outlines in one image so that things get more confused.

But then he takes this not obviously purposeful arrangement of shapes and lines and treats it as a definite, authoritative template: a stencil to be coloured in, like a colouring-in book, in plain areas of colour. But again this is done without obvious plot. The colours are seldom at all natural. A face shape may go blue. Nor are they consistent. A blue face may be matched with a green neck. But neither do these colour combinations ever quite suggest - and so explain themselves as - a scheme or a harmony. They are kept bold and clear but up in the air.

Meanwhile, Hume's materials are unyielding. His pictures aren't on canvas but aluminium. He uses gloss housepaint. It's a medium that can't easily be mixed or blended. It gives you this or that colour, with no transitions. It can't really be handled either. It has one texture: shiny smooth.

People do, but one needn't, describe and praise Hume's art as radically blank or vacant. That's not really the point. His procedures are certainly, in some respects, very inflexible. And then again, in other respects they're very casual. And I think the Hume hook is just there, in the interplay of these two tendencies: at every turn, the throw-away, laid-back, doodly, short- attention-span meets the definite, hard-set and immutable.

The charm of these paintings is that they look like they could have gone a million and one ways, but have ended up this one particular way. Of course it takes skill, something like wit, to convincingly combine a sense of arbitrariness and a sense of fixity. And actually distinctions can be made. Often the needful precariousness isn't caught. I think there are only four or five things in this show where the trick works well, especially paintings such as Fuchsia Marie, which involve almost unnoticably narrow colour differences - and even then, who knows how soon it'll look boring. As for the more abstract ones, which look like close-ups of beach- balls, the corporate foyer beckons ineluctably.

Kiki Smith is an American sculptor in her mid-forties who used to do "body-art" with a therapeutic/ victimist slant - fragile female figures exposing psychological pains in physical metaphors, that sort of thing. And there are a couple of papier-mache girls in her Fruitmarket Gallery show, rather piquant when you suddenly notice their glass eyes staring madly out of the paper flesh. But chiefly this show features animals - rabbits, mice, frogs, owls and wolves. Wolves apart, those are animals of moderate but not excessive wildness. There's a lot of floor-based stuff here, with troupes of little effigy creatures swarming around your feet, and the mood is a blend of Walt Disney and Sylvia Plath, vulnerable but perky. It's enjoyable, really, because Smith is so prodigal with ideas - all these beasts clearly have good potential presence.

But she's not so good at bringing the ideas to a point. For instance, there's another piece on the floor which consists of a scattering of bobbles of (I think) sheep-turds cast in bronze, and set among them some geometrical many-pointed star-shaped solids. Well, I liked the sheep shit, and there seemed to be some sort of earth-heaven, muck-purity thing going on, but it is characteristically vague. A line of five owls, high on a wooden shelf, facing the wall, and titled Counsel, was the only work with a sharpish focus. It's a pity the shelf wasn't screwed into the wall properly. The display in general is a bit loose and over-crowded.

Thinking about display conditions, there's another point. The exhibition before last at the Fruitmarket was a group show of young Scottish artists, and one of the works it included was a kind of olfactory installation: the small room off the upstairs gallery was empty, except for a strong and pervading smell - an artificially synthesised but very convincing aroma of semen.

It's now two and a half months since that exhibition closed, and the Fruitmarket may be having second thoughts about this piece, because the smell of semen hasn't, so far as I can tell, abated in the slightest. It appears to have chemically bonded with the little room, which is currently showing a Kiki Smith video - a jerky animation of a lone wolf loping through the night. All right, one can imagine more incongruous juxtapositions, but it is a little distracting.

Inverleith House in the Royal Botanical Garden is such a beautiful little gallery that it doesn't really matter what it shows, but at the moment it has some recent paintings by Agnes Martin, the American mystic-minimalist, who is by now a fairly old lady. For a long time her pictures have consisted basically of horizontal lines, hand drawn, in bands of varying density, and people have been known to get expansive landscape feelings and powerful quietness off them. I can sort of see that, or I could, but these works from the last five years are extremely spare and faint: single horizontal lines, evenly and quite widely spaced, with bands of very pale primary colour between them. Even in this propitious environment, contemplation failed and in its place came the naughty thought of a New Yorker cartoon whose caption goes "You know, sometimes, less is less".

There was a period when the National Gallery of Scotland did really notable festival exhibitions - for instance the Poussin/Cezanne show of 1991. Lately, it doesn't seem to happen. This year, it has a show of somebody's collection of French drawings from the 17th and 18th centuries, with one of those posh titles, Mastery and Elegance (as it were, Sir and Madam). And yes, there are fine things in it, and the Prud'hon life-studies are particularly worth seeing. But this is a display any public collection might have any time.

It has also got something called The Tiger and the Thistle, which appears to be a history show about the Scots in India, but I'm afraid I didn't go in - on the grounds that any Edinburgh Festival exhibition, at the National Gallery of Scotland, which includes the word "thistle" in its publicity should be severely ignored. I mean, "The Camel and the Haggis"? "The Ostrich and the Sporran"? Well, honestly.

Gary Hume: Dean Gallery, Belford Road. To 17 Oct, pounds 2.50, conc pounds 1.50

Kiki Smith: Fruitmarket Gallery, Market Street. To 11 Sept, free

Agnes Martin: Inverleith House, Botanic Garden. To 31 Oct, free

Mastery & Elegance: National Gallery, The Mound. To 5 Sept, free