Gary Hume and The Long Goodbye

“Is it all in that pretty little head of yours?
What goes on in that place in the dark?
Well I used to know a girl and I would have
sworn that her name was Veronica”*

Too many people can relate to this.

Like cancer, almost everyone knows someone who’s suffering, or has suffered, from dementia or alzheimer’s disease. Gary Hume does. So do I. I mention it because that might make me, perhaps, not the most impartial viewer of Mr. Hume’s new show, “Mum,” at Matthew Marks Gallery. Mr. Hume’s “Mum,” Jill Henshaw, has dementia. The 14 works on view relate to his Mum, as seen by the Artist as a child, and as an adult. Mr. Hume said in a New York Times interview, “I just wanted to paint a picture of my mum, and I wanted to do it to honor her.”

Knowing the subject before I walked in, the show still blindsided me with it’s understated power. Though there is only 1 portrait of his Mum on display, the other works leaving it to the viewer to connect them with her, the real strength of the show comes in it’s sum effect.

It had me close to tears.

“Three Leaves,” 2016-17, Enamel paint on paper. Falling as part of the cycle of their life. Falling like tears. Or, they could be floating away on a river of rippled paper…Click any photo for full size.

Mr. Hume is part of the “Young British Artists” group that sprang out of the Freeze “Sensation” show in 1988, though he’s not as flamboyant as some of it’s other members who were his classmates, studying for their B.A.’s in Fine Art, at Goldsmiths College, London, at the time. Now 55, his choice of subject has led to Mr. Hume’s work taking something of a radical turn, resulting in his most personal show yet. While Artist’s mothers are certainly not an unusual subject in Art, dementia is, in my experience. In Art, perhaps it’s most been discussed by those wondering if they can “see” Willem de Kooning’s dementia in his work.

“Georgie,”(Mr. Hume’s wife), left, and “Mum on the Couch,” right, both 2017, Enamel paint on aluminum, and a perfect place for a bench.

An initial visit to the show gives the impression that Mr. Hume’s Paintings share the quiet dignity of Ellsworth Kelly’s final Paintings that recently hung on these same walls. They also possibly share a similar technique with Mr. Kelly’s Plant Drawings that hung next door at the same time, both Artists being fond of rendering a plant in outline. (I wrote about both Ellsworth Kelly shows here.) But their apparently simple compositions and minimal palette are deceiving.

Mr. Hume has developed new techniques that he has mastered to the point that he can use them with wonderful subtlety. Raised lines of paint lie on the flat surface, and act like the lines in a Drawing, delineating and detailing shapes. Elsewhere these lines are smudged, possibly with a finger, into the shape of a mouth, or an eye. They are executed in the same color as the shape they appear on, making details hard to see clearly, requiring the viewer to stand close to the work to see them. This remarkable effect adds to the “there/not thereness” of the image. Paintings on paper became crinkled and wavy as the enamel house paint Mr. Hume uses (in colors pre-mixed in a hardware store) dries creating marvelous textures and effects. Other works on aluminum have very flat background surfaces, and reflect light making it even harder to see the detail. Using these techniques, and others, Mr. Hume does a remarkable job of making us feel both presence and absence in the same image. They are, also, a meditation on the nature of memories.

Even standing in front of the bench, the detail is hard to see.

Close-up of “Georgie,” reveals one of the “drawing” techniques Mr. Hume uses to add still nebulous “details” to these works.

The middle room of the show features Paintings of his Mum, and his wife, Georgie, surrounded by Paintings of plants, flowers and gardens, including this one.

Abstraction of another sort. “Grandma Looks at the Garden,” 2017, Enamel paint on aluminum

“Well she used to have a carefree mind of her
own and a delicate look in her eye
These days I’m afraid she’s not even sure if her
name is Veronica”*

The third and final room seemed to be focused on life continuing. It includes a painting of yellow rain against an orange background that struck me as, possibily, a sunshower.

“Rain,” 2017, Enamel paint on paper. A seemingly “simple” idea that in the context of this show takes it entirely elsewhere.

Contrastingly, next to it, is possibly a garden seen at night, where only the outlines of the plants are visible. Together, they emphasize loss, and memory, being something felt day and night, triggered by almost anything, and manifesting themselves in every situation and time.

“No Light,” 2016, Enamel paint on aluminum. Difficult to see clearly, like many memories are…

On an adjacent wall, a bird looks skyward, it’s beak closed, without a song.

“The Diver,” 2016-17, Enamel paint on paper.

And, finally in this room, one of two Paintings of berries, “Ripe,” below, bursting with life. (Whiter to, from here?)

“Ripe,” 2015, Enamel paint on paper. Bursting with so much life, the paper can barely contain it.

Meanwhile, the flowers in the show are mostly muted. After all, flowers are, often, symbols of beauty, and loss. Seen at both weddings and funerals.

“Mourning,” 2016, Enamel paint on aluminum

In her article about these works in the New York Times, Barbara Pollack said that Mr. Hume “recoils at any interpretation that reduces the work to merely being a response to his visits with his mother. He prefers to think about the relationship to subject matter as a process of ‘permissions.’…” The thing about Paintings, or Art, is that once it’s been created and put on public display, every person who sees it will have their own “interpretation” of it. I doubt these (especially my own) line up with the Artist’s very often.

Perhaps nowhere here is this better summed up than in “Blind,” a 2016 Painting in the first room. Pale flowers are shown against a white background. A nut seems to be falling towards the lower right corner. Every time I see it, it speaks of something else, but it, also, speaks to loss/impending loss of a mother, with the seed, the harbinger of new life, symbolizing the offspring…himself.

“Blind,” 2016, Enamel paint on aluminum, seen in the show’s first room.

These “ridges” appear in a number of works (like the other flower Paintings above), and are interesting to contrast with the more often than the “softer technique he uses in “Georgie,””Mum on the Couch,” and “Rain.” I haven’t found out as yet how he creates them, but they are stunning and add much to the mystery, and beauty, of these works. The Artist has been trying to replicate them in his prints.

As I said, I may well not be impartial when looking at these works. Ironically, my Mom’s dementia first became apparent one Thanksgiving day. Ironically, this show happens to be up from November 4 to December 22. I was drawn back to it 3 times Thanksgiving week. Now, stepping back from myself, and thinking about the beauty and the power of “Mum,” and seeing other works that Mr. Hume has created recently in the show’s catalog, it seems to me that Gary Hume has made a breakthrough both stylistically, and in portraiture.

“Mum in Bed,” 2017, Enamel paint on aluminum, not on view in the show, from the show’s catalog.

“Do you suppose, that waiting hands on eyes,
Veronica has gone to hide?”*

Mr. Hume’s work has greatly evolved in the almost 30 years since the “Sensation” show brought him and the YBA’s to wide attention. For years known as the “quiet one” in that group, it’s hard for me not to feel he’s only now hitting his stride. Though I doubt that many will agree with me at the moment, Gary Hume may yet turn out to be the Artist the YBA’s are remembered for. While each work on view is uniquely beautiful on it’s own, it’s as a group where each plays a part in telling a larger story, a story of life, love and impending loss (“the long goodbye,” as it’s called), ironically, in slivers that are almost there…like memories.

Human memories may have a finite lifespan, even under the healthiest of conditions. It’s in translating them to other forms where they have their back chance to live on…indefinitely.

Gary Hume, “Mum,” is my NoteWorthy show for November. 
*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Veronica,” by D.P.A. MacManus (aka Elvis Costello) and Paul McCartney,  from “Spike,” published by Universal Music Publishing Group.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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