Painting by Numbers

Tate have put together an intelligent pairing in sixties figurative painter Patrick Caulfield and YBA nineties prodigy Gary Hume. Whilst Hume was only just born in the same decade where Caulfield discovered his artist’s voice and began teaching at the Chelsea School of Art, there is more to link the work of these two men than the materials they choose, or chose, to employ.

Caulfield flourished in a period of growth and positivity in Britain, his works reflect stylish interiors, clusters of ornate objects and holiday locations glowing with the trappings of wealth. But he was a child born of the war and the stark realities of growing up in Bolton, where both of his parents worked in factories, and the tight claustrophobic feel of his canvases, the persistent menacing air, point toward a man uncomfortable with fripperies and material success. Hume’s seemingly gaudy abstract scenes, at first appearance, if not celebrating the tacky excesses of modern lifestyles at least seem to collaborate with them. This was the man who first came to prominence as part of the now iconic, then controversial and widely critically panned, Saatchi “Sensations” show. Closer inspection reveals ambivalence, a teetering between slickness and a void, both perfectly captured in the high gloss finish of the works.

Patrick Caulfield, Still Life with Dagger (1963). © The estate of Patrick Caulfield

Patrick Caulfield, Still Life with Dagger (1963). © The estate of Patrick Caulfield

After seeing both shows at the Tate I can certainly attest to the gaping emptiness which yawned out of each perfectly rendered image. In some sense both artists feel quite old-fashioned, dinosaurs from another era. They paint because they want to, because this is what they are best at and so approach from perhaps a more practical angle than some of their contemporaries who theorise and paint to express grander ideas. Caulfield was a filing clerk and RAF pilot before decidedly changing careers by taking evening classes at art school. In a recent interview Hume stated that his “desire to be an artist really came out of being broke and unemployed and incapable of holding a job down.” Before attending art school he too had a varied, chaotic sort of job history.

Both men, then, very different from those strategic careerists such as Damien Hurst who no longer match the stereotype of the mad loner artist in his paint-splattered studio, relentlessly churning out work that no one will see. Apart from this last statement, this could still be truthfully said of Hume and (before his death) Caulfield. The latter seemed to be the major draw on my visit. His bright, but dated, colour palette and almost cartoon style was entrancing in the first room; it’s easy to understand his popular appeal. Pushing into the further rooms of the exhibition the unpopulated hotel-style scenes and empty holiday streets became much like an all-inclusive vacation, sickly sweet, too garish, too much. Like a British holidaymaker unaccustomed to the relentlessness of daily sunshine and rich food, Caulfield feels ill-at-ease with the grandeur of the lives he is depicting.

Patrick Caulfield, After Lunch (1975). ©Tate

Patrick Caulfield, After Lunch (1975), acrylic on canvas. © Tate

I wanted to not enjoy the Hume show as much, put-off by the vacancy inherent in the door paintings he began his career with. The works were framed perfectly, designed to be gathered together in a white cube environment. There were a number of works which I’d have been happy to go home with, art which you’d like to hang above your fireplace telling of their obvious commercial appeal. Hume speaks of the stillness and calmness he wants to instil in his paintings, the lack of a biographical narrative which he purposefully seeks. I think his work is more telling than he’d hope. There is bleakness in these flat images which belies the finish. Here is another man disillusioned, uncomfortable in his new surroundings and perhaps with the pace of modern life. A man who chooses to paint what he sees in the outside world, in contemporary culture, but isn’t convinced by it and so cannot convince us.

This is a very interesting look at painting and the themes that unite these two artists who, despite their successful careers and popular acclaim, remain outsiders in a corporate capitalist reality. If you’re yearning for something solid, something which will encourage you to slow down, you should take a step out of your busy London life for a look at the work of these old-fashioned modernists.

Gary Hume, The Cradle (2011). © Gary Hume

Gary Hume, The Cradle (2011). ©Gary Hume

Both on display until 1st September 2013.

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