Gary Hume: Colour magic

Gary Hume is the quiet man of BritArt whose paintings go for £250,000 a pop. He's also the subject of our latest exclusive print offer: see link. Words by Paul Vallely. Portrait by Immo Klink

Gary Hume comes to the door somewhat distressed. He embarks on a convoluted story about a bodybuilder and the wheel-lock on the Vespa scooter that stands in the long narrow hallway of his east-London studio. I do not fully understand it, though I get the message that there was a problem and it is now sorted out. Hume is hard to follow. Things do not get an awful lot easier when he begins to talk about art. His speech is, by turns, furious and then halting, as his thoughts trip over one another and then reduce him to silence. His sentences are fractured, his thought-processes elliptical. You can see why he is a painter and not a writer.

Along the hallway stands a long row of empty, gleaming silver-paint cans, piled three high. If he sent them to the Tate Gallery they would probably exhibit them. But that's not Gary Hume's style, even if he did first come to critical attention alongside Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Mat Collishaw, Sarah Lucas and the other so-called Young British Artists who defined the whole BritArt scene of the 1990s. When his peers were busy being enfants terribles with their sharks in formaldehyde, chicken vaginas and unmade beds, Gary Hume insisted he was, unfashionably, a painter. The word "shock" was not in his artistic vocabulary.

Even so, the works that brought him to the attention of the collector Charles Saatchi were his "door paintings", life-size representations of hospital doors complete with porthole windows and kickplates. His detractors dismissed them as vacant glister but enthusiasts spoke of, for example, "a critique of modernist non-representational painting, playing as it did on the similarity between a white painting and a white painted door – a visual pun" and raved.

Hume shows me through to the light airy kitchen and makes me a nettle tea. It is surprisingly pleasant, as is Hume, whom I had been told in advance was grumpy with journalists. (He told me to read Gombrich's Story of Art before arriving, though I think that was a joke.) By the French doors is a huge canvas of plain magnolia, the only obvious remnant from his "doors" period. A wealthy City type had bought something similar, he tells me, and then phoned up a few weeks later to say that it didn't look as good as it had in the exhibition where he had bought it.

"I asked him: 'What time do you go out to work?' He said 7am. So I said, 'And what time do you come home?' And he said 9pm. So I told him to come home at lunchtime and look at it. A few days later he rang back and said: 'I see what you mean'."

What Hume meant was that his paintings are about light. Before I went to see him I had looked at dozens of his paintings on the internet. They gave no real idea of what he was about. The two-dimensionality of the computer screen gives no sense of the vibrancy, texture or hugeness of his work.

There are dozens of pieces – paintings mainly, but also a number of sculptures – crammed into the studio in preparation for his new exhibition, American Tan, at the White Cube gallery's Mason's Yard site in London's West End. They jostle with one another like solipsistic commuters. Most are close-focused studies of sections of the bodies of American cheerleaders, all legs and ra-ra skirts and frilly giant pom-poms. Mixed in with them are more abstract paintings of what Hume describes as "ugly chicks". Some of his paintings look banal, but others are viscerally exciting. There is a radiance to his work, and that is more than just because of its shiny surface gloss.

He describes the idiosyncratic process that produces it. He works from photographs that catch his fancy in magazines or books, which he traces on to acetate. He then projects the outline on to his studio wall. "I pull the image in and out to see at what size it looks best, to see when it comes alive." He then transfers the outline on to large sheets of shining aluminium and etches the shapes into it with acid. Then he lies the sheets flat on the ground, pouring on household gloss paints in pre-mixed hues.

Most of the paintings are too big for the average-sized home, which is perhaps just as well since they sell for around £250,000 a throw. "Small paintings can be fantastic. But you can't often get a narrative out of a small painting. In any case, museums are huge places and you want to take up some space.

"Sometimes I can see the whole painting from the outset in my mind's eye. But more often than not that idea doesn't last the duration of the painting. Sometimes it comes out easy, just as I had envisaged. But that is reasonably rare. I have to go with what the painting says to me. The painting is always informing me. I'm its servant; it's not mine. I'm doing what it wants."

Paradox, if not bald inconsistency or contradiction, has long characterised Gary Hume's discourse on his art. He went through a phase of painting C-list celebrities such as Tony Blackburn and Patsy Kensit, before upgrading to Kate Moss and Michael Jackson. "I wanted to honour the people I painted. I didn't want to make ironic paintings of them..." But then he talks about the attractiveness of failure. "Leonard Cohen has a line about there being 'a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in'. It's the flaws that illuminate," he adds and then sails off into a reflection about how protestors against the Iraq war make placards where "the typefaces are all over the place, and you think, my God, these people are all mad but they are the ones who go down to protest while the rest of us just stay at home and say how terrible it is. It's the mad that are brave." Make of that what you will.

But then Gary Hume's art is what speaks for him. It got him shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1996, where he was the only artist not to talk to the television cameras. It got him selected to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1999. It got him elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts – a distinction usually reserved for grey beards – in 2001.

Did his paintings look different, I ask, in Italy, where the light has such soft brilliance? "Paintings look different everywhere. I had one exhibition in Spain where the gallery had windows in the roof permanently covered by blinds. In the art world people create a faux-natural light, because they want to fix art as a permanent thing. I'm interested in how it changes. I told them to open the blinds, to get the interplay of sun and clouds reflected in the paintings. They are highly reflective, which means there are layers of looking. You look at the picture, and you look at the surface, then you look at the reflection in the surface behind you, then you look at yourself."

He turns to glance around the spacious white studio. Soon all the work will have gone to the gallery and Hume knows he will feel bereft. "It's like your children have left home. It's like facing a blank sheet of paper and the need to create something else."

Yet his sense of paradox resurfaces. "I sometimes feel horror at the thought of yet another picture in the world. And another one by me. More bloody pictures. It's unbearable.

"There's this Japanese artist and all he does is paint the date – 27/8/07 – generally, white letters on a black background. Then tomorrow he might make another one: 28/8/07. I've no idea what he's like, whether he's gay or straight or married or alone or happy or sad or depressed or a golfer. I've no idea. All he does is provide these banal but finally quite cruel little missives that speak of all the unfulfilled possibilities, all the things he could of done instead of just painting the fucking date.

"It would be such a relief, to be an artist like that, to find something that could satisfy you that is so nothing. But unfortunately my personality isn't like that. I want to make things. So when this lot have all gone I'll be back here again, in an empty space, struggling away all day, trying to find something."

Gary Hume's American Tan is at White Cube, 25-26 Mason's Yard, London SW1 (020-7930 5373; to 6 October

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