So slick, so appealing

Iain Gale admires Gary Hume's gloss
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"It's beautiful," says the girl at the White Cube Gallery as she hands me the catalogue for Gary Hume's current exhibition at the ICA. And she's right. It is beautiful, this bright pink, hardbacked eulogy to an artist whose work is all about presentation. Welcome to the Hume experience. This guy is seriously slick.

The very fact that this slim volume, with its two wearingly earnest essays and ludicrous price of pounds 29.95, was so hard to get hold of at the ICA, ("I don't know if we're meant to give them to the press"), suggests that Hume, at the tender age of 33, is already cloaked in the mystique of "an artist of importance". That, of course, is the idea. But is it justified, or might it be as artificially generated as the catalogue price?

Hume is a protege of the arch art marketeer Jay Jopling. Having wowed us with Damien "the sheep" Hirst and Mark "blood head" Quinn, Jopling now presents Gary "hi-gloss" Hume. His credentials couldn't be better. Graduating from Goldsmiths' in 1988, Hume's first exposure was in Hirst's seminal "Freeze" show of the same year. This was followed by a show with Karsten Schubert, the necessary exposure in New York and Cologne and obligatory inclusion in the provocative British Art Show of 1990. Hume's work has subsequently appeared in some of the hippest shows around, including "Wonderful Life" at the Lisson, the Hayward's "Unbound", Waddington's "From Here", "Minky Manky" at the South London Gallery and, most recently, at the Venice Biennale. Predictably, five of his paintings are in the Saatchi collection. Oh yes, Hume is a painter. But the fact that it's taken me three paragraphs to mention this reflects the unfortunate amount of unnecessary polemic which envelops his art, threatening to stifle any worthwhile content.

The first thing to remember about Gary Hume's paintings is that they are not paintings in any conventional sense of the word. They are certainly made of paint and, at first sight, appear to suggest that we engage with them on the same wavelength as Pop, but their aesthetic lies with the conceptual. Hume is aware of Pop's legacy, but to see his Patsy Kensit, for example, merely as a huge, mock-Warhol anti-portrait would be to miss the point. Hume, as a painter, might, with his contemporaries Ian Davenport and Fiona Rae, seem unusual for a Goldsmiths' product, but he cannot be considered with the same criteria as either painter, or any of the artists recently labelled with the catch-all banality of "New Painting". Hume's paintings are about paint. Their titles highlight the ironies of 600 years of narrative and verisimilitude.

A similar point is raised by Hume's favoured medium of household gloss. In Begging For It a woman's silhouette offers black-gloved hands in a supplicatory pose reminiscent of a Renaissance votive donor. The unsavoury title though suggests a political comment on a pornographic sub-culture of female submissiveness. It is possible to see this painting, sans title, as a somewhat decorative piece of hard-edge abstraction.

Such layered ambiguities are common throughout Hume's work. His earliest paintings were geometric groupings of circles and rectangles which gave his panels the appearance of doors, and whose reflective gloss finish relocated the viewer in a world beyond the paint. Such positive and negative aspects inform all Hume's work and, if these paintings are about paint, they are also concerned, in a way which directly echoes early New York abstraction, with the lines where colours meet and the ways in which we perceive depth, space and matter.

It is, however, the concern with something other than the image with which we are confronted, that makes Hume's work, to coin a phrase, "so different, so appealing". Here is custom-made candidate number one for next year's Turner Prize shortlist. Beautiful.

n To 26 Nov, ICA, London (0171-930 3647)