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June 09, 2006

Lilian Pizzichini finds depth in the blandness of Gary Hume's recent work: Cave Paintings by Gary Hume at White Cube

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Cave Paintings
by Gary Hume
White Cube Gallery
48 Hoxton Square, London
26th May - 1st July 2006
Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 6pm

Gary Hume stands out amongst his peers for being so brazenly bland. He refuses to give his audience anything to get their teeth into. His latest exhibition is no exception but the subject-matter shows a startling change of direction. Twins become putti, blank-eyed, newly born babies taking on the garb of angels, in this new show, Cave Paintings. Unusually for this most determinedly self-referential of artists, his newest art is soaked in allusions to art's past. A brief summary of his career to date would make reference to hospital doors, and gloss paint on panels made of MDF or aluminium; post-pop, post-Warhol bright colours and vacuous faces. Hard to say what he was getting at except that he was taking a pop at celebrity culture and the Saatchi-driven art market of the Eighties and Nineties.

Cave Paintings recalls the Madonna and Child of Renaissance and Baroque traditions in seven monolithic tableaux that use slate, quartz and granite in collaged sections held together by lead tracery. Delicate lines edge the contours of a mother's face and a baby's open, hungry mouth, following the natural faults and veins of the stone itself. The baby in Milk Full is funny and sweet at first sight. His or her lips are as full and moist as a Hollywood starlet's but then the lipstick lusciousness of that red speaks of a rapaciousness and a voracity that encompasses the sexual. This is not just the polymorphous perversity of Freud's His Majesty the Baby, but a precocious awareness of what is coming to him (or her), and demanding it here and now. It is a knowingness that we associate with 21st-century, hyped-up artists but coming, as it were, out of the mouths of babes.

The use of materials such as marble and limestone is a brilliant reminder of ancient statuary, church architecture and the young city professional's smart, starter flat. Clever this - to highlight the pretensions of his potential buyers.

There is a truly organic feel, rare in his work, that helps fuse form with content, thereby deepening the resonances of what he has to say about the perennial subject of mother and child. He can even, as with Milk Full, be sinister with his subject-matter.

He also portrays the troubling power of motherhood. In Mother Mortality, the maternal figure holds a string that turns into a speech bubble with a baby curled up inside. In psychoanalytical terms, once that baby speaks, the bond of physical closeness is broken, hence the fragility of that bubble. This wordless merging of mother and child is a brief, illusory relationship the pricking of which causes heartbreak in infants as they enter the world of language and are taken out of that primal connection to the maternal realm. Here, Hume has gone for the corporate marble surface more often associated with Canary Wharf than the nursery perhaps emphasizing the realm of the father.

Into the Dangerous World shows mother as monolith (something that is suggested by the sheer scale of these works). She is traced in sage green marble, her baby in blood red. He balances precariously on her arm against a glittering black abyss. Finally, His Majesty the Baby is adorned in gold, silver and black in Adoration of the Magi.

As usual, it is hard to find any depth or complexity in his work. It is more a case of loading his images with one's own associations. There is no language of symbols for us to interpret as would have been the case in the frescoes and oils of his Renaissance and Baroque forebears. Same subject, same style, or a variation thereof, but different content, because 21st-century viewers bring different associations. In a way, then, Hume is quite sophisticated rather than simplistic but you have to do quite a bit of work to get to that viewpoint.
When you create a picture you are finding something. You work with a fluid material which then sets, capturing the very memory of that liquidity. Although initially you would not think it, stone and lead behave in the same way as paint does, it's simply a matter of time or pressure.

What is really interesting about his latest series is how acutely aware he is of the secondhand, received nature of all the desires and opinions we like to think of as our own. Now the silly faces and flowers of his celebrity-mocking, Dulux days make sense. Here he is celebrating and subverting a different form of iconography.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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