In a 2012 catalogue essay for a solo show by Gary Hume, the great US writer Dave Hickey wrote “the art you make should not be expressible in the language of criticism spoken by your camp counsellors. It is supposed to exert pressure on the underpinnings of that antique language.”
The essay is titled Romance in the suburbs and it circles Hume’s iconography of flowers, birds and nudes, locating him in a lineage that includes Alex Katz, Patrick Caulfield and Wayne Thiebaud. Hickey calls them “abstractionists of daily life”.
The pressure that Hume exerted on the prevailing language of art in the UK at that time came from the fact that his work was not rooted in the neo-conceptual practice that had characterised many of his Goldsmiths College contemporaries.
How the world has changed in eight years. There are still some flowers in the current show at Sprüth Magers, still some fairy tale gingerbread houses that might at first seem to fit neatly with darkly folkloric motifs in Hume’s early figurative paintings. But there is something quite different afoot here, and it places even greater pressure on language.
Hume has always had an uncomplicated relationship to the concept of beauty: he embraces it as naturally as breathing. He was always an artist in and of the world, but now conflict, the displacement of peoples, the misery of shattered lives has seeped into the work, crept under the carapace of beauty and inhabited it.
There are precedents, of course, for the pivot away from a more reflexive exploration of form towards a response to events: Henry Moore veered from his surrealising biomorphic forms to make the moving ‘shelter’ drawings, which record London’s huddled masses sleeping in the underground stations to avoid the Blitz.
Barbara Hepworth produced mesmerising drawings of surgeons in theatre, also during the Second World War. In the 1960s, the horrors of the war in Vietnam prompted arch-minimalists Carl Andre and Dan Flavin to make work in protest at US actions there.
Wars in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have filled our television screens for years, and the fragments of children’s book imagery in the wall of drawings that confront the viewer in the first space here are echoes of footage showing the poignant remains of bombed out school buildings. These works on paper – whose cut-out technique inevitably conjures up late Matisse – and the two paintings that accompany them, are from a 2019 series of works called The Destroyed School paintings.
The most recent paintings are in the rear gallery and on the first floor. They come in sombre, oily hues of greyish green, and a single motif floats beneath the taut surface in each one: it is the schematised outline of a lifejacket. Sometimes two are laid side by side, slab-like.
In other paintings, the outlines lay over one another in a profusion that recalls both the glories of Hume’s 1999 Water Paintings for the British Pavilion in Venice. Or, more grimly, the accumulations of discarded objects that are found in the wake of human catastrophe.
The single sculpture in the show, set slightly provisionally on a trestle table in the first-floor gallery, is a monumental collage of the same abstracted lifejacket form. Cast in concrete resin, in close tones of drab grey, the play of positive and negative spaces nods to mid-20th century sculptural concerns. But it retains an awkwardness of demeanour in its tilted attitude that keeps the viewer circling around, interrogating surface texture, oscillating between an abstract and a figurative interpretation.
Peering into Archipelago 3, the sheen of the artist’s trademark gloss paint offers up the low-relief outlines of the lifejacket form. They seem to move, jostling for space, as if just breaking the surface of water. In this, as in other paintings here, Hume inserts slivers of colour – a celadon green, an almond pink – that bring you back to the picture plane, and to the safety of more formal considerations.
This is familiar terrain for the artist, whose feel for colour and composition have been honed to mastery by years of patient studio work. What is distinct here, what exerts pressure on the language we use to talk about these new paintings, is the power they have to send the mind out to thoughts of desperate, cold dawn crossings in tiny boats; to the utter fragility of hopes pinned on shoddy life preservers.
Archipelago references the artist’s reading of John Donne’s poem No Man is an Island, which includes the phrase: “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
The last work you come to in this pleasingly spare hang is a diminutive painting on paper, its single motif is a moss green that jars agreeably with the prevailing palette of the other works. The delicate outline, rimmed faintly in white, could suggest a cartographer’s depiction of a remote island. Stepping away, the form could be the outsize, nodding head of a human embryo. With its wrinkled surface and inscrutable presence, it is somehow a defining element of this show, in which beauty, pain, anxiety and powerful human connection sit side by side.
Sprüth Magers, 7A Grafton Street, London W1S 4EL. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11.00-17.00. Exhibition continues until 23 December 2020. www.spruethmagers.com