When I think of Gary Hume’s work, it’s a particular texture that comes to mind first. Glossy paint on ultra-flat aluminium, standing up in ridges. Frameless, the only sign of the human touch is the occasionally streaked paint running down the sides of the metal block. Then comes the feeling I get when I look at these paintings: serenity.
Archipelago, Hume’s latest exhibition at Sprüth Magers, brings that serene approach to some troubling source material. The gloss on aluminium paintings all show repeated u-shaped designs, with the arch of the letter in a keyhole shape. These are Life jackets, representing those worn by migrants risking their lives on overcrowded dinghies and boats, on their way over the English Channel. Fleeing one “hostile environment” for another.
Hume, looking past that, sees “a much more ancient image of the potential for life, and the celebration of life, which is a yoni”. In a video shot by the gallery to accompany the show, he says that, “at their best”, they are “meditative, formal paintings”.
Meditation or gynaecology likely isn't top of mind for those desperate sailors, on the roiling waves of the sea, hearts beating fast under threat of drowning. And, far from life giving, isn’t there something sinisterly inert about those hard ridges of paint, in their various shades of grey and green?
On the other hand, in the midst of life we are in death. Hume makes that point elsewhere, in a wall gridded with drawings of gable-roofed buildings like fairy-tale ginger-bread houses and flowers; along with the lifejackets and the aluminium, these images are all part of the artist’s established iconography. The atmosphere’s nice and peaceful as usual, until you read the show notes, and realise that they’re reproductions of newspaper images of children’s drawings. All these children live in war zones, and have had their schools damaged by the conflict. Desperation to serenity, again.
It’s a major achievement for an artist to have such an established, unmistakeable style. Is it strong enough though to be equal to such subject matter? You won’t find the answer in that shiny gloss paint, but you’ll want to try.
Gary Hume: Archipelago is at Sprüth Magers (London). 06 October - 23 December 2020