Gary Hume once told me that he was a caveman — stuck in his cavern, attempting to paint the world outside. It was a neat way of saying that the problems of painting haven’t really changed much in 40,000 years.
Just as in the days of Lascaux, it’s still a matter of making a flat image, with pigments, of a wide and complicated world. The trick is to find a way that feels fresh.
“How to paint a door” (2013) by Gary Hume. This new painting of doors functions as the actual entry to the exhibition. Source: Gary Hume/Tate/Samuel Drake/Tate via Bloomberg
Hume does that, and so too did the late Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005), an artist from an earlier generation whose work, it turns out, has a good deal in common with Hume’s.
They’re currently being shown side by side in twin exhibitions at Tate Britain (through Sept 1). It’s an exercise in compare-and-contrast from which both emerge looking good.
Hume is weathering the difficult mid-career years well; Caulfield looks more and more like a truly great painter.
The new wrinkle in Hume’s work could be summarized in two words: gloss paint. What he does with this household item is visually brilliant. His starting point was a series of paintings of hospital swing doors. The point about those is that they’re simultaneously abstract, geometrical and 100 percent realistic.
In other words, here is an answer to an age-old conundrum – – one that, in fact, goes back to the Stone Age: How do you pack a 3D subject into two dimensions? The works at the entrance to the show carry the joke one step further: They’re paintings of doors that you can walk through.
After the doors, Hume continued to work the changes, finding other subjects that could be reduced to flat, reflective shapes — among them plants, birds, and Kate Moss.
Some work better than others. Yet Hume has consistently found ways to convey a lot with a little. “Yellow Window” (2002) consists of nine inky rectangles on a corn-colored background. The black paint makes a mirror surface; at the same time, it is darkness, depth, mystery.
Caulfield, during his lifetime, sometimes suffered from what might be called a filing problem: People didn’t know where to put him. As a young man, he belonged to a generation labeled the British Pop Artists.
Yet Caulfield belonged to no movement. Like most major artists, when it came down to it, he was sui generis.
Caulfield’s art is virtually unpopulated. There are hardly any figures in this exhibition. One exception is an early “Portrait of Juan Gris” (1963). His world resembles that of the early cubists, such as Gris. It consists of still-life subjects and interiors, especially restaurants and bars –places the artist loved, and where he spent a great deal of time.
He found his source material in out-of-date magazines and cooking spreads. The resulting pictures conjure up a nostalgic yet comical world of the once fashionable.
Yet Caulfield’s painting, like cubism, is a complex and witty game of appearance and reality. Much of the picture is composed of flat areas of color and black lines. Against these, he often sets just one or two items in brilliantly naturalistic photo-realism.
“Happy Hour” (1996), for example, is a bar interior with bottles, a table and a lampshade, all created with colored silhouettes — plus a single, utterly naturalistic wine glass, reflecting the whole scene on its shiny surface.
Caulfield’s work is often funny and full of feeling. That bar is a place of warmth and shelter, yet it’s shadowed with mortality; to one side, prominently, hangs an “exit” sign.
First published on Bloomberg.com