in Features | 05 JUN 93
Featured in
Issue 11

Shut That Door

Gary Hume

in Features | 05 JUN 93

The trolleys trundle by: some carry the sick, others freight pre-cooked meals in heated wagons, yet more are stacked with library books, medical notes or pieces of equipment. Sometimes a sealed box passes by, with a corpse still warm from the bed. No one takes much notice. Then there are the wheelchairs, ferrying people to X-ray, and the convoys of cleaning equipment, the bedpans and laundry, and the giggling, ranting, pre-medicated Nil-By-Mouth victims being wheeled down to Theatre. The doors flap open and shut. They are reinforced with metal panels, protecting them from a careless, constant battering. There's usually a big aluminium or steel plate screwed to the lower half of the panel to meet larger traffic, and a smaller handplate near the edge of the door, below the porthole. The doors swing to and fro, all day and all night long...

The double-doors which punctuate hospital corridors are hinged so that they can be pushed open in either direction. They have circular windows set into each panel, so that users can see whether they are likely to collide with oncoming traffic. A collision here may not just be farcical, but fatal. There are doors such as these not only in hospitals, but in institutions of all kinds: schools, prisons, factories, canteens and offices.

That these doors should become the imagery of a painter's work is not so surprising. That they should become the sole image or source of format and surface-divisions, is. That Gary Hume's paintings have been well received both by critics and collectors is perhaps to be expected. That their author should recently have made a video of himself, seated fully clothed in an overflowing bath, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette and wearing a Burger King cardboard crown, imagining himself as King Canute and telling an inaudible joke, is perhaps not so much a surprise as a cause for concern.

The idea of the painting as a door is not so different from the idea of the painting as a window: a view onto a world beyond the surface, beyond the wall, beyond the gallery. A view of elsewhere, a place either real or imagined. (The 20th century has seen many famous plays on the convention: Matisse gave us a view through the window onto nothingness, while Magritte made several involuted puns, in which the view through the window became the painting placed on the easel before the window in the painting of the picture on an easel in front of the window. Phew.)

It seems entirely appropriate to our time that the painting-as-window should have become a painting-as-door, and that the door should be closed. It is one of those someone's gotta do it ideas that appear inevitable. It is an image of closure and impenetrability which still manages to allude to the idea of something beyond - withheld, unseen, absent. There's a dumb poetry in the image of the shut door.

Yet Gary Hume's 'door' paintings are much more than dumb; as much as anything else they are a doorway to theory-heaven. The paintings are anointed not with incense but with more than a whiff of the Modern Art liturgical - things phenomenological, epistemological, paradigmatical and semiotical: the whole art-school Gilbert and Sullivan roll-call. For a start, they are not so much pictures of doors as doors themselves, life-sized and painted as doors are, using household gloss. Many of these works are based on actual doors in Bart's Hospital in the City of London. I picture the artist, stalking the wards, tape-measure and notebook in hand. If the Government has its way, Hume's paintings may soon be all that's left of the oldest hospital in the land. The nullity of the image forms the image itself, a schemata of a door painted on a panel which also is much like a door. There's no fidgety nuancing, no brushy blathering and no illusionism. Everything is on the surface. 'The surface is all you get of me.' Hume said when we met. The elements are drawn on the flat surface and painted-up, filling-in the roundels and protective panels and the seam where the double doors meet. The paint is built up, layer on layer, accentuating in relief the parts of the door. It is painted as well or as badly as you or I might decorate a door. Any drips are accidental.

A year or so out of Goldsmiths' College (where else?), having first introduced his paintings to the public in the seminal Freeze show in 1988, Hume was included in the 1990 British Art Show. '...they remain,' he said, in a catalogue note on his work 'an empty sign, a door motif in a potentially endless series - simultaneously spacious and oppressive.'

A prophetic statement. The doors Hume had been showing up to this point were one-coloured, painted in that innocuous yet depressing hue known as 'magnolia', the details of the door being picked out only by relief and the direction of the brushstroke. Yet he was about to present versions in which the elements, which, after all, are simply an arrangement of circles, squares and rectangles, were picked out in different, unsettling colours.

He was to start constructing the paintings as unequally proportioned multi-panel works, aligned along their top edge and butted together. He was to get other people to select the colour schemes according to their own, private systems and associations (the Dolphin paintings). He was to go on to paint the doors using his own 'weird' colour schemes, and to make an installation in which the door-form, with its panels and windows, was cut out in negative in green tarpaulin, creating a walk-through 'forest of signs'. He made dinky, freestanding door paintings, which could perch on a table or a shelf. He showed a variant, which was left at an early stage, replete with brushstrokes and dribbles. And he re-complicated the enterprise by building up the gloss to such a degree that the works were largely unphotographable.

The viewer became a mirage-like presence in these works, eerily reflected and distorted in the sagging, many-coated slicks of gloss: a shadowy apparition glimmering in the brand-name depths of Dulux, Macpherson, Crown, Texas, Do-It-All and Bromell. There were flat, matt fresco-like versions, employing the distemper colours used on the outsides of Italian buildings, but painted on the interior walls of Barbara Gladstone's Roman studio-apartment. The supports for the paintings graduated from stretched canvas to hardwood-cradled MDF, to a terrifyingly expensive plastic-honeycombed laminate sheet developed for the aviation industry.

And it goes on. It still goes on, this 'potentially endless series'. So what is Gary Hume doing in the bath, when he could be following the well-known track, getting better and better at less and less, painting yet more variations and elaborations on the theme?

Here's a story of Modern Art. It's a story I keep hearing, over and over. Here goes:

You have a romantic notion, the dream of being an artist. You go to college, the right college, and work and work and with diligence and zeal come up with a bright idea. Of all the bright ideas you might have had, this is the one that catches on. It's catchy. It's got a hook. It's got a twist.

First your friends, and then your teachers, and then your dealers, and then the collectors and critics and curators and all of the others watch as the one idea grows and flourishes and comes to be expected.

And this one idea of yours ceases to be an idea and turns into product, a waiting-list, a schedule, a production-line. Now this idea comes Classic, Deluxe, Series or Straight. It comes pocket-size or mural. You're eating better now, and sending your clothes to the laundry. Your address book's fatter and so are you. Maybe now you can get someone else to make this stuff, and carry on the work of the one idea, because all of this happened many, many ideas ago. And the clock is running, and it's way past 15 minutes ago that you had the one idea; it was several, several marriages ago.

You could turn the idea on its head. Flip it, twist it, kick it. You could always hang it on the wall, this one idea of yours, like a moose-head in the library, with its glass eyes and moulting hair and stuffing coming out of its mouth.

It was a good idea. It still is a good idea, but not the only one. There are forces at work though, to keep things as they are. Market forces, psychology, paranoia, a sense of self-esteem. If you change track now, will it wipe out the one idea? The collectors are getting nervous. If you switch now, will people think you're ambulance-chasing? Are you sincere? Where's your commitment and where's your career? Keep your head down, stay low. You're a character trapped by a chance remark, stuck inside an old routine. It was an idea you were once in thrall to, but it wasn't the only one. And it had its limitations.

These days, a trip to Hume's studio is a disconcerting experience. Sure, there was a door painting against one wall: several unfinished panels propped on paint-tins and blocks amidst the usual clutter and paraphernalia of the painter's craft. But then there's the other stuff. The old cast-iron bathtub and a child's garden slide standing in the corner, a naked, pink baby doll resting on the platform. And there are the tubes: bundles of roughly manufactured, intestinal scrim and wire pipes dangling from plastic washing-up bowls, suspended on strings from the roofing joists. The colonic stalactites hang down almost to the floor. He says they have something to do with nutrition, these flabby pallid roots. And the slide is part of a piece about birth, possibly the birth of baby Jesus. I edge toward the door.

The new paintings are a shock. A Madonna and Child. A square of perspex is screwed over her ultramarine tit. Where the nipple should be, is a rubber teat from a baby's bottle. Awkward pulpy strips of mashed-up masking-tape partially obscure the image. They echo the 'nutrition' tubes. The painting is called This is Not Possible. A second painting with the same subject has the faces of both Virgin and Child reduced to knobbly black blobs. He says this painting might also be a map. There's a wobbly vertical stripe-painting with a puce-faced man in a bright blue shirt peering round the side of one of the stripes. In the transparency I just received of this work, the grubby aluminium stepladder Hume uses in the studio has been leant in the middle of the painting. Does it belong here? There are also two all-black paintings: one with lexicon-like overlays of all the different-sized and proportioned elements of the door-paintings; the other bearing an image of an inverted figure, vaguely Viennese Sucessionist in its distortions, with black on black impasto flowers around the figure. This is the one he tells me most people like. The art nouveau, fin de siècle feel is continued elsewhere, even in the floppy sinews of the pipe-pieces. But we're heading for the end of this century, not the last one. Is this where we are going?

Hume's video is called Me as King Cnut. The spelling is both a return to the archaic form and, of course, an obscene anagram. In one version of this endearingly inept bathtub frolic, he turns to the camera and gives a knowing leer. King Cnut either had the hubris to believe he really could, by Divine Right, hold back the tide, or he knew full well that he couldn't, and was simply proving a point. Hume merely wallows, like the rest of us.

There are more paintings stacked up in Gary Hume's studio, the one's he didn't let me see. They are in another room, behind a closed door. He says they're the failures. What is a successful painting, nowadays? And what is a good idea? What is good painting, and who needs it? Too many questions. I keep thinking of the derision which met Phillip Guston's first exhibition of his stumblebum Klansmen pictures in the late 60s. De Kooning walked up to the artist and whispered in his ear that he knew what they were about. What? said the artist. De Kooning's reply was simple. Freedom, he said.