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Between Control and Anarchy:
Gary Hume’s Painting Masquerades

In contrast to the other "Young British Artists", Gary Hume has always refrained from implementing shock effects in his works. His use of high-gloss enamel on firm supports developed into an individual style reminiscent of the hard edge and color field painting of the sixties. Today, he’s more successful than ever. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on Hume’s super-smooth paintings, his subversive depictions of flowers, animals, and people, and the current exhibition "Carnival".

Hermaphrodite Polar Bear, 2003
Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

These days, visitors to Gary Hume’s exhibition Carnival at the Kestner Gesellschaft are confronted with a veritable circus of strange figures and formations – hermaphrodite polar bears, pitch-black snowmen, roses and leaves shimmering in brown on a pistachio-green background, shiny enamel windows divided by brilliant pink frames. As the show’s title already suggests, the flora and fauna of Hume’s visual world are dressed up in colorful costumes, concealed beneath simple forms layered in enamel paint.

Grey Leaves, 2004
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

When asked in a 2004 video portrait what his paintings were and what he wanted to attain with them, the artist answered: "They are pictures and I don’t know what they are. Doing my best, I believe in them. I believe that they have got a truth in them." Discovering this truth, however, requires a certain degree of endurance. The spirit lies in the detail – or rather in the masquerade. The feelings of astonishment, alienation, or amusement that Hume’s paintings can unleash recall the experience of someone who suddenly discovers that a murky reflection is lurking beneath the clearly contoured mask of the person before him – the shiny surface he was projecting his own associations, memories, longings, and fears onto. "I found that gloss paint suited me entirely, and its qualities still intrigue me", Hume remarked in a 2002 interview with the Guardian. "It’s viscous and fluid and feels like a pool. It’s 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."

Small Disappointment, 2003
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

Initially, however, Hume’s paintings radiate a kind of reduced, sober quality that borders on the banal. After graduating from the renowned Goldsmith College in London, where other "Young British Artists" such as Fiona Rae, Matt Collishaw, Sarah Lucas, and Damien Hirst also studied, he became famous overnight with his series of Door Paintings from the late eighties. Painted on masonite or aluminum sheets and often comprised of several panels, these paintings resemble the ordinary swinging doors found everywhere in Great Britain’s public buildings, such as schools and hospitals. While the images depict real subjects, the rectangular door forms and round window openings, rendered in industrial enamel paint, give rise to abstract elements and forms – parallelograms, rectangles, and circles organized into severe geometric compositions. The color fields, applied in unmixed colors and clearly separated from one another without any fluid transitions, recall the emotionless repertoire of hard edge and color field painting of the sixties. At the time, and as a counter-movement to Abstract Expressionism’s quest for the sublime, American artists such as Al Held and Ellsworth Kelly pursued an extreme economy of form, perfection in the application of paint, and total color brilliance.

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