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Gary Hume

Artist Interview: Gary Hume opens the doors of perception at the Tate

A pair of Hume’s swing doors mark the start of his Tate Britain show. But what lies beyond?

It has been 25 years since Gary Hume exhibited three life-sized paintings of hospital doors at “Freeze”, the much-mythologised exhibition organised in London’s derelict Docklands by his fellow Goldsmiths student Damien Hirst which, with a little help from Charles Saatchi (who also bought all three of Hume’s “Freeze” doors), launched the band of creative go-getters that soon became known as the Young British Artists, or YBAs. Since then Hume has broadened his subject matter and is now established as one of the most important painters working today. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1996, represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and was elected a Royal Academician in 2001. His distinctive, smooth-surfaced paintings executed in gleaming expanses of household gloss on sheets of aluminium—as well as his painted bronze sculptures—are exhibited and collected worldwide. This summer Tate Britain is presenting a survey of Hume’s works spanning from the early 1990s to paintings made in the past few years. They are being shown in tandem with an exhibition of Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005), another celebrated British painter from an earlier generation, who is also renowned for his vivid but somewhat cryptic images of contemporary life. “Gary Hume” is at Tate Britain until 1 September.

The Art Newspaper: We enter the show at Tate Britain through a pair of your painted swing doors. Why did you decide to make a painting of a door that also works as the real thing?

Gary Hume: I wanted a door [painting] in the show, but it’s not a retrospective and so I didn’t want to go down that line. At the same time I was thinking about how to get in everything I could. Then I wanted the sensation of going through those doors and entering into my perception: the glorious thing of touching a painting and then being able to move through it and into another world. If the show is popular it will probably slowly get damaged and I like accepting the fact that time will take its toll on this object—whether I’ll have to go down there and touch it up every few weeks, I don’t know.

It’s a big pink door with window panes and push panels that seem to form a face; it looks quite anti-institutional.

I chose the most anthropomorphic door shape that I could and they are huge these Tate doors, the sheer scale is quite extraordinary. One half is an actual Tate door—I had exactly the same doors made by the people who make all of the Tate’s doors—and the other half is a surface for me to paint on. It’s also a slight gift to people’s desire for entertainment: I’m not very big on the entertainment side of art, but I see how popular entertainment is, and so this is my little gift of entertainment.

Isn’t there another door in the show, the Red Barn Door [2008]?

Yes, but I don’t think of that as a door painting.

Why not?

Because it’s not institutional and I painted it as a conversation with American painting: it’s an art door and an agricultural door rather than an English door. It’s about Americana and making a big American colour field painting: the vernacular colour is that red, although I’ve made it a little bit brighter.

Since 2001 you’ve divided your time between a London townhouse and a farm in upstate New York. Why did you decide to make this move?

In the first place I was in the luxurious position of having the cash to buy a second home and what I wanted was land, privacy, quietness and beauty. I couldn’t afford it in England, but in America it was a tenth of the price. I grew up in the countryside, but I’ve been urban since I was 16, and I was frightened of becoming a ruralist. I also didn’t want to have any sense of retirement, so that’s why I wanted to be an immigrant and to go to a country of immigrants so I could still have some fire in my belly. It’s a very peculiar country and I very much enjoy being there, nothing is reassuring in its familiarity. Even things like the red barn door are not that reassuring because they are not actually what they pretend to be: inside is either some crazy with his guns or a Lamborghini on blocks.

You may be reluctant to become a ruralist, but for a chunk of each year you are completely surrounded by nature.

I found the indifference of nature so shocking when I first arrived—your own ego becomes so miniscule. You are in this huge universe and the bloody crickets are cricketing and the frogs are croaking and the garden keeps growing and it just goes on and on and on. All of your acts seem futile, which can get you down a little bit. But at the same time it can give you the freedom to describe what it’s like; the great thing about being an artist is that maybe one of [your works] will stick around and will still describe what it’s like in 100 years’ time.

Do you think this American experience has affected your work?

That’s one of the fascinating things about painting there, there is no real change. You’d think that the work would have completely changed, but it hasn’t changed much at all. A few more flowers might have turned up. I don’t have an assistant there, so there’s no one to do the boring bits. This has meant that bit-by-bit I take the boring things out of the work and so the paintings are much more direct because I can’t be bothered with all the preparation and building-up. Then there’s how I completely step out of the cultural world: there are vegetable gardens and I’ve got a tractor and I’m just pottering about and cooking and swimming and cycling and working. It’s only me and Georgie [Hopton, Hume’s wife] and I’ve got no thought of culture and whether what I am doing is relevant, or how it sits in the world. I find that very, very liberating.

You talk about your paintings as having regret and pathos, and there’s often a sense that all is not necessarily well beneath their shiny surfaces.

To celebrate life you’ve got to do the whole thing and not just celebrate one little bit of it. I’m very passionate, but also very ambivalent about the nature of things, so the paintings I make must have a space in them of unknowing. I prefer the working out of the formula, rather than the answer as I find that overwhelmingly pleasurable. I’ve got no interest in anything that is truly defined. That’s why I don’t like narrative: if I was any good at it I would probably like it, but there’s no room for me to imagine and I want to imagine.

Your subject matter spans Vermeer to Michael Jackson, while your most recent series is inspired by a magazine you spotted at a supermarket checkout in the US commemorating the death of Osama Bin Laden. You’ve said that your images declare themselves to you, but that you also want to create something that you haven’t seen.

I want them to be of their time because I’m alive now and I want them to be truthful. I’m not nostalgic, I adore seeing work from other times and I like work that functions as a telescope back in time. I make human objects: I do my absolute best to be completely truthful and put as much love into them as I possibly can. The great thing about making pictures is making a beautiful painting and an interesting painting all at the same time. Sometimes you can make a beautiful painting that’s not interesting and sometimes make an interesting painting that’s not beautiful. It’s absolutely thrilling when you can do both.

Beauty isn’t a very fashionable word these days, but it seems always to have been very important for you.

When a painting is beautiful, that’s when it comes to rest and can be observed. When it’s not beautiful, I start to think before I see, and I like to see and then to think.

You also make sculpture, although there is only one of your sculptures in this show, a white-painted bronze Snowman.

The show is what they call a survey, which I take as meaning like an archaeologist would survey the land and find points within it to try and understand what was—or in my case—is there. So I didn’t want to start adding things that would stand for work that was not going to be in the show, as there are tens and tens of types of work that aren’t going to be represented. But I put a snowman in because it is joyful but also full of pathos, and it seems to embody both the problem and the solution of sculpture. The problem is, you’ve got to find something to make, and it has to stand up and it has to work in the round. A snowman is a readymade that we’ve all made, it can be looked at from all angles and it stands up. I’m not a sculptor, I find sculptures: my new sculptures are wheels and they are very successful sculptures because they do all the things sculptures are supposed to do.

Your Tate Britain survey is taking place alongside a show of paintings by Patrick Caulfield. The Tate describes you as “complementary British painters”. How do you feel about this pairing?

The conjunction of me and Patrick is going to be so interesting because there he was making Modern pictures, contemporary pictures, but what’s happened to them now in terms of value? Are they contemporary now? Or are they of a time? Do they still vibrantly describe the world that we live in, or do they really accurately describe the world that he lived in? Neither of those things are better or worse than each other. I am also very intrigued about my use of flat areas of colour and his use of flat areas of colour: you’d think that there shouldn’t be much emotional range between two artists who both paint with flat areas of colour, but I think there’s going to be a huge difference between what one feels in his exhibition and in my exhibition.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline 'Opening the doors of perception'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 248 July 2013