Exhibitions/Edinburgh: Beauty is in the eye of the birds

New Paintings by Gary Hume Dean Gallery, Edinburgh
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The Independent Culture
The following ex-change between two gallery attendants at the exhibition of Gary Hume's paintings in Edinburgh struck me as revealing, somehow.

First attendant, eyeing Hume's work with evident disgust: "Do you like these things, then?"

Second attendant (shyly): "Aye, I do."

First attendant: "Then you're a tosser."

Pause.

Second attendant: "Aye, I am."

The strange truth is that both of these critical views of Hume's work are equally tenable. Walk into the upper rooms of the Dean Gallery, where his latest paintings are on show, and you are instantly struck by the prettiness of it all. On a grey Scottish summer's day, your heart lifts. So many colours! So much gloss! Such charming images! And all of these things are true.

Hume's palette has been completely transformed since those sombre days when he painted pictures of hospital doors, complete with porthole windows and kick-plates, for Damien Hirst's "Freeze" show in 1988. Now, the crown prince of Brit Art is all for brightness: floral pinks, alkaline greens and acid yellows, all painted in unalloyed blocks of colour which are juxtaposed with each other for maximum resonance. One thing that has not changed is Hume's medium of choice, namely household paint. His new works, smaller than his "Freeze" pictures, look like enamels. Painted for the most part on aluminium panels, they shimmer with that expensive gloss that seems to speak of money. As though all of this were not sufficiently winning, Hume's latest paintings also take as their subjects the kinds of thing that set hearts a-flutter in art appreciation courses up and down the country: that is to say, birds (of both the human and avian varieties) and flowers. With titles like Japanese Garden and Red Doves and Pauline K, they could as easily be on show in a church hall in Budleigh Salterton as in the annexe to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

So why do you feel that something nasty is going on as you stroll through Hume's new garden of earthly delights? Received wisdom - received from the artists themselves, that is - suggests that there is a new spirit abroad in British art. Painters like Martin Maloney, widely (if mysteriously) heralded as the Prince Hal to Hirst's Charles VI and Hume's Dauphin, paint mythological scenes in acrylics and a false-naive style, all in the name of something called "beauty". All three artists went to Goldsmiths, where the word had long been banned: the source, presumably, of its current appeal. Quite how deep the differences run between Maloney and Hume (or Hume and Patrick Caulfield, who was painting kitschly pretty cartoon pictures 30 years ago) is open to debate: the most obviously profound of them is that Maloney likes to be known as "a painter of beauty" while Hume prefers to think of himself as "a beauty terrorist". One thing does seem clear, however. With the imprimatur of the Saatchi Gallery - champion of both Maloney and Hume - prettiness is the next big thing in British painting.

But just how pretty are Hume's new works? On the highly polished face of it, the answer is: very. Just as the Walt Disney Company uses computer software to generate platonic cuddliness in its new characters (big eyes, small noses, anthropomorphic features), so Hume presses all the buttons that spell out attractiveness in art: birds, paint, flowers, figurative representation, wallpaper* colours. His ambitions are rather more complex than those of any omputer-generated Lion King's, however. The other outstanding quality of the paintings in the Dean Gallery, the one that makes you feel that there is something unpleasant going on in them, is their emptiness.

Take what is probably the most overtly tasteful picture in the show, Orchid II, 1999: a Japanesey confection of eau-de-Nil foliage silhouetted on a shiny black field. The gallery's catalogue gamely takes the work at face value, championing it as a manifesto for a new aesthetic of contemporary beauty by comparing the painting's biomorphic forms (and its philosophical ambitions) with those of Art Nouveau. My own feeling is that the picture actually has a quite different agenda: that it sets out first to seduce, and then to insult. Hume's notorious working method is particularly evident here. As is widely known, he traces his subjects from pages torn out of magazines, pointedly extinguishing any sign of the artist's own creativity in the process of making his pictures. Colours, equally notoriously, are chosen for him by friends. To compound all of this, Hume's hand is further disguised in Orchid II by the elimination of obvious brush marks, the picture's surface having apparently been poured on rather than painted. The overall feeling is of clinical disinterest, as though Hume has set out to produce a set of empirically measurable psychological tests lightly disguised as a flower painting. Put another way, Orchid II does two things. It invites admiration and then, having won it, taunts the admirer for being stupid enough to fall for something so hollow. It asks you whether you like it, and then it calls you a tosser when you admit that you do.

Old ways obviously die hard. Beauty may be the new mantra of the Goldsmiths boys, but their underlying (and oddly old-fashioned) assumption is still that prettiness and vacuity are consequences of each other: worse, that prettiness and vacuity are one and the same. The really creepy thing about Gary Hume's new work is how much thought has gone into its apparent thoughtlessness. For all their airport-lounge gloss, their ripped-off Sixties glamour, these are icily intellectual paintings, full of contempt for the viewer. And the curious thing about them is their power to continue to appeal even after this has been explained to you. They may not be nice, but really are very pretty. They may even be slightly great.

`New Paintings by Gary Hume': sponsored by Bloomberg News. Dean Gallery, Edinburgh (0131 624 6200) to 17 October

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