Gary Hume: 'Now my sculptures stand up'

The one-time YBA, and Brit-art contemporary of Emin and Hirst, has made a major breakthrough in a crucial area of his work...

The Big Interview
Friday 26 February 2010 01:00

There aren't many people who could put a face to Gary Hume, even if they could spot one of his glossy, candy-coloured paintings a mile off. Of the gaggle of late-Eighties Goldsmiths graduates who enjoyed the patronage of Charles Saatchi and Jay Jopling, and later became known as the YBAs (Young British Artists), Hume has never been a fully-fledged celebrity in the way that Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin have.

This could be due to his choice of medium; while his peers were busy sinking sharks in formaldehyde and immortalising their unmade beds, Hume stuck to plain old painting. He tried his hand at sculpture in the early days but says: "They kept falling over. That was my main trouble: gravity."

There was another reason why Hume seemed out of step with his Brit art contemporaries. While his friends were getting wasted at the Groucho Club, Hume was more likely to be found sitting in a playground with his young son, Joe, of whom he shared custody with a former girlfriend. Hume was determined that his son should have a dad (his own father left when he was 18 months old), though he remembers early parenthood as an "incredibly boring activity" and is in no hurry to do it again.

Joe is now 22 and studying contemporary dance in New York, and Hume, 47, is married to the artist Georgie Hopton. The couple divide their time between London and a small farm in the Catskills in upstate New York where they spend summers tending the vegetable garden and making maple syrup.

We meet in his London studio, a smart, two-storey space near Old Street. The vivid flawlessness of his paintings stands in conspicuous contrast to Hume, who is rather unkempt-looking, with his three-day stubble and frayed sweater. Grooming clearly isn't high on his to-do list, even though the precision of his work would suggest that he is, at heart, something of a perfectionist.

The studio is lined with his trademark gloss-on-aluminium paintings, all huge – around ten feet high – and propped against the wall on empty paint-pots. Downstairs there's a kitchen and living area, at the end of which sits a bookshelf stuffed with exhibition catalogues and titles on Michelangelo, de Kooning and Beuys. There are books on birds and flowers picked up on Hume's frequent trips to Charing Cross Road in search of inspiration. "If I'm feeling desperate I'll go out image-hunting," he says. "I'll go to newsagents and stand at the rack flicking through magazines or go to second-hand bookshops. And then, bit by bit, like concrete poetry, I start to realise that I am drawn to particular things and then I start wondering why that is."

Laden with images, Hume will then come back and start drawing. "One drawing demands to become a painting so I start to work on that, and then the painting might demand something else," he explains. "Then the painting might say, 'I want a companion, and the companion should be like this', so I have to find that, either by drawing it myself or locating the image."

Hume has a habit of talking about his paintings as if they are living beings with minds of their own. He has said that a dialogue that exists between him and his work, though that's not to suggest that he sits in his studio all day madly jabbering at his paintings. He is, I think, making a point about the instinctive nature of his work; his ideas come from a place in his mind that he can't quite locate and would rather not question.

Hume is currently preparing a selection of paintings and drawings for an exhibition in Salisbury, and another at the Sprüth Magers gallery in Berlin. He is also set to publish his first picture book, a self-titled coffee-table number which lays out, in no particular order, his life's work, from his famous door paintings through to his pictures of flowers, hats, babies, birds and body parts.

It was the door paintings that made Hume's name. Three of them appeared in Freeze, the 1988 exhibition of Goldsmiths graduates that caught the eye of Charles Saatchi and thus jolted British art out of its torpor.

The doors were inspired by an advertisement Hume had seen for Bupa, and were life-size replicas of the swing-doors inside St Bartholomew's Hospital in east London. One of them hangs here in the kitchen. Blank and beautiful, it's painted magnolia and blends in so well with the units that I don't notice it until Hume points it out, which is probably the point.

Hume finished the original Door series in 1992, though he continues to make the odd one for old times' sake. Did they hamper what came next? "Not really, but I'd had enough of them," he reflects. "I loved them but unless I stopped making the damned things I knew it was all I would make for ever and I would be bored out of my mind.

"They are beautiful to look at and you can have fun with them intellectually, but to actually paint them is incredibly boring. You're sanding and sanding and then painting and sanding again and painting. It is a nightmare, overwhelmingly awful. I just couldn't be that bored, not for art."

The most successful of his paintings, Hume maintains, are born from embarrassment. He opens his book and shows me a picture from 1994 called Polar Bear.

"When I was making that I was tearing my hair out and thinking: 'Oh my God, how could I draw that? It's ridiculous. What am I doing?' Looking at it now I love it, but to enable myself to make that I have to be embarrassed by it. Someone's going to come in and say: 'What is that childish nonsense, that great big blobby thing with all these pubic tendrils sticking out?' You've got to be okay with that, otherwise you are working within a consensus."

Hume loves gloss paint because of its ability to reflect light and change colour under different conditions and at different times of day. He flinches a little when I say that some might see his works as decorative. Certainly, their aesthetic qualities make them considerably more accessible than, say, one of the Chapman brothers' penis-nosed dolls, and are undoubtedly the kind of paintings that people want to own.

A few years ago Elton John asked Hume to make something for his shower at home.

"I said to him, 'of course, what a nice idea,' but inside I was thinking: 'Are you fucking mad? Of course I don't want to make anything for your shower. How insulting!' After that, every time I saw him he would say, 'how's the shower piece going?' and I'd say, 'fine.' Then, after about two years, he said: 'Look, Gary, what's happening?' So I said that I didn't want to do it after all. So he said: "Well, why don't you get a can of spray paint, write, 'Elton's a cunt' in my shower, and I'll buy it."

In the end Hume built a marble piece inspired by William Blake's gravestone for John's shower. It was a huge success, and led to him making more for exhibition. "It was a problem-solving exercise – how do you create something beautiful and worthwhile for a shower-room? – that resulted in me making something that I would never have thought of in other circumstances. So I was pleased. But I still wrote 'Elton is a cunt' on the back of it. Ha ha!"

Hume grew up in Kent, the fourth of five children. His mother read a lot of poetry and would take the children on day trips to London galleries. "I remember my feet aching and thinking, 'will this ever end?" he recalls. At school he wasn't exactly filled with encouragement by teachers who told him he would never amount to anything. "At the time I thought: 'You're offering me a passport to a world I don't want to be a citizen of, it seems overwhelming dull."

Hume left school with three O-levels, and a vague hankering to make films. "I went to Soho every day knocking on the doors of editing suites. I got a job as an assistant film editor, which lasted for a few years but I found writing incredibly difficult, and I thought: 'How am I going to make a film if I can't write?' I didn't really comprehend that someone else would do that bit."

After two years he fell out with one of the directors, was fired and returned to Kent. He worked as a petrol-pump attendant for six months before getting a job making life-insurance- trading films.

"That was awful, truly dreadful. I realised that I had to do something where I could be in charge of what I was doing, so I thought then that maybe I could do pictures." He enrolled in evening classes in art at the Working Men's College in Camden, London, and later signed up for an art foundation course.

After a year at Liverpool Polytechnic, Hume transferred to Goldsmiths, where he found himself working amid a group of hugely confident and like-minded people. His tutors later said that there was a chemical reaction between the students that was unprecedented and very exciting.

It was a competitive yet supportive environment that Hume found thrilling. "Everyone was simply trying to find a way of making their own work and finding their own voice. When they found that voice, and made something good, you'd say: 'How brilliant. I wish I'd done that myself, but how brilliant.'"

After the fabled Freeze exhibition, Saatchi bought two of Hume's door paintings and commissioned four more. By the mid-Nineties, Hume and friends were the toast of Britain's cultural scene and were rubbing shoulders with pop stars, film-makers, writers and actors.

"My wife thinks the Brit-art thing is a load of rubbish, but that's because she wasn't in it," he grins. "I wasn't out and about so much because of my son but it was definitely an exciting time. You had a bit of money in your pocket and you felt that there was this power, a sense of entitlement. It gave us confidence and for a while that was nice."

Since then Brit-art's enfants terribles have become contented figures of the establishment. Hume was the first of the group to be welcomed into the Royal Academy in 2001, having already represented Britain in the Venice Biennale in 1999. Since then his old chums – with whom he is still in touch – have branched out. Emin writes newspaper columns; Hirst runs a multimedia empire; Sam Taylor-Wood makes feature films. Meanwhile Hume has stuck doggedly to his original vision. His palette has darkened, and he has even started dabbling in sculpture again (and has, finally, found a way of keeping them upright) but his aesthetic hasn't altered radically since his YBA days.

"I really love making things and I don't really have the confidence to do much else," Hume reflects with apparent contentment.

"It's the great pleasure and pain of life that you really are stuck as yourself and however much you wish you were capable of making someone else's work, you can't. So you don't."

'Hume' is published by Other Criteria. Gary Hume: New Work is at the New Art Centre, Roche Court, Salisbury until 4 May ( He is also exhibiting at Sprüth Magers gallery in Berlin from 2 July - September -

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