Museums

Two British Painters Use Style as Substance

by Chloe Pantazi on July 25, 2013

"Patrick Caulfield," installation view at Tate Britain (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

“Patrick Caulfield,” installation view at Tate Britain (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Patrick Caulfield (1936–2005) and Gary Hume (born 1962) have 34 years between them, and yet their work is similar and compelling enough to warrant a twin retrospective at Tate Britain. Because the Tate has prudently divided the artists — “offering visitors the chance to see the work of two complementary British artists from different generations,” as the exhibition leaflet explains — the viewer experiences Caulfield and Hume individually. And because there are no descriptive captions alongside the artworks — only an accompanying pamphlet, which focuses on one work per room — the viewer is left to discover the connections between the artists herself. Caulfield and Hume are known for their comparable uses of style: as a conduit to explore loneliness and the way it looks (in Caulfield’s work) and as a way to examine the vulnerable power of beauty (in Hume’s). Their art isn’t stylish without substance, however — even if that substance is the sheer volume of a work’s emptiness.

Walking into the Caulfield exhibition is rather like entering Jay Gatsby’s mansion long before the party. Like Gatsby’s, Caulfield’s world is seemingly self-made, solitary yet robust, a semblance of wealthy loneliness. Interspersed throughout five gallery rooms, the artist’s many architectural pieces — mostly acrylic and some oil paintings — feature modish abodes and cold-seeming villas in hot places. These structures appear less like lived-in homes and more like modernist showrooms where walls and furniture exist in slabs of color, so that a room’s details are sliced by clean lines and tidy curves.

Patrick Caulfield, "After Lunch" (1975), Tate (© Estate of Patrick Caulfield, photo by Tate Photography) (click to enlarge)

Patrick Caulfield, “After Lunch” (1975), Tate (© Estate of Patrick Caulfield, photo by Tate Photography) (click to enlarge)

One is lulled into a false sense of comfort by Caulfield’s houses: spacious rooms sparsely furnished with snazzy accoutrements like chic telephones, record players, vases with wilting roses inside, and passive fish tanks, their walls blanketed in fervently patterned wallpaper attuned to the vagaries of time. Meanwhile, outdoors, terracotta patios lean over vistas of manicured lawns and flowerbeds, or a veranda with a table of food — a lobster dinner, or a seemingly bottomless bowl of paella — juts out above a Mediterranean view.

For all the ersatz splendor of Caulfield’s work, though, one doesn’t settle in easily. Look at “Dining/Kitchen/Living” (1980), an acrylic painting that enacts a domestic scene in a triptych, each section a different color: red dining room, blue kitchen (with kitschy multicolored wallpaper), purple living area. Though the piece is mostly abstract, some details are suspiciously photographic: the light that hits the lid of the casserole dish on the dining table, for example, perforating a ring around its rim, looks real. It is a small reminder of life, and it brings with it a threat, collecting like a smudge of grease.

The outside world often interrupts Caulfield’s indoor paintings. It intrudes upon “After Lunch” (1975), an acrylic of a saloon-style restaurant doused in blue. In the work, a portrait hanging on the wall in front of a fish tank shows an idyllic Alpine landscape, replete with castle and lake. This painting within Caulfield’s is the focal point of the piece, issuing a crude reality check the way a Brechtian actor’s pointed finger might enlist an audience member mid-performance, the fourth wall dismantled within the frame. Caulfield once said, “I don’t want to do something which is so artificial that it becomes surrealism. I want it to have some link with reality.” Yet it is that reminder of reality which surprises us most in the artist’s domestic dream world. Things here are opposite: what appears to be encroaching in all of Caulfield’s work is not the nightmare, or even the fantasy, but somber, persistent reality.

Patrick Caulfield, "Concrete Villa, Bruun" (1963)

Patrick Caulfield, “Concrete Villa, Bruun” (1963)

Above all, what’s alarming about reality’s intrusion is the weighty loneliness it brings with it. Looking at a Caulfield painting, you feel as though no one’s home but you’ve let yourself in regardless. People rarely feature, and when they do, they’re quizzical creatures with indistinct faces and bodies, “quiet and meaningless” ghouls like T.S. Eliot’s hollow men. Consider the first piece of the exhibition, an oil painting titled “Concrete Villa, Bruun” (1963), in which a shadowy, ashen man — expressionless, save a curt slit for a mouth — stands atop a villa, floating in a grid of black lines dissecting a gray background. Amid the brighter works on view, the painting initially seemed dull, but on second look (each show’s entrance doubles as its exit, so the viewer has to revisit the entire thing), it impressed me. For an exhibition about loneliness, “Concrete Villa” is a thoroughly appropriate précis. In itself, it’s an isolating piece, but in the colorful space — where it seems to fling a little insult, with its muted color scheme — it behaves somewhat like its vague figure: at home but really lost, adrift.

After Caulfield’s lonely vortex, Hume’s world, which consists of just three rooms, is far more inviting, and quite literally. Swathed in glossy pink paint with chocolate-colored buttons for windows and bars for push plates, the entrance doors are painted in the manner of the artist’s infamous series of hospital doors, though they perhaps resemble more closely the entrance to Willy Wonka’s saccharine fantasyland. Issued with the jocular title How to paint a door — as though Hume had actually had an argument with someone about how doors should be painted — the entrance to the exhibition is its own pre-performance piece. The doors are a fitting introduction to Hume’s realm, since his work, like Caulfield’s, is concerned with surface. But whereas one can peel back the curtain of a Caulfield painting to peep at its slumbering reality, one cannot escape veneer in Hume.

Gary Hume, "Beautiful" (2002)

Gary Hume, “Beautiful” (2002)

Much of Hume’s work here is composed of aluminium overlaid with lashes of gloss paint, reflective canvases with textures so slippery, they appear to have been plunged whole into syrupy lip gloss. At first sight, “Beautiful” (2002), a large aluminium disc covered in coral-pink paint with a pronged brown triangle planted in the middle, is unexceptional. Looking closer, however, the lightly etched outline of a woman’s face — Kate Moss’s, as the exhibition leaflet points out — reveals itself. And then that imposing, forklike nose, which we learn, again from the booklet, belonged to Michael Jackson. Standing close to Hume’s vanity mirror, my reflection in the varnished metal temporarily joined with Moss’s and Jackson’s faces, and for a moment, we all looked the same.

A recent Guardian article suggests that our acute interest in celebrities hinges on “a strange kind of ego voyeurism,” so that when we’re watching them, really “we’re just watching ourselves reflected in their faces.” Perhaps this is the point of “Beautiful,” which challenges us to find our own appearance among other familiar ones. Hume’s piece also reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s novel Look at Me, in which the model protagonist Charlotte is disfigured in a car accident. Tellingly, it’s only once Charlotte’s looks are forfeited that she learns “there was no such thing as the power of beauty. Only the power to surround yourself with it.” Standing in an art gallery, surrounded by the plastic loveliness of Hume’s pieces, I felt that I wasn’t in the presence of beauty, but rather a wavering version of it. The longer I looked at “Beautiful,” the further it drew me in: here is a supermodel’s perfect symmetry hijacked by a crude symbol of cosmetic surgery; the “shadow self,” as Egan describes it, “that caricature that clings to each of us, revealing itself in odd moments when we laugh or fall still,” emerging from its pristine shell; one flimsy concept of beauty covering up another.

There’s an undeniably ethereal quality to “Beautiful.” Though it’s difficult to locate the truth in a Hume piece — as with Caulfield’s paintings, which seem to have two skins — it’s there somewhere, lurking beneath the sleek varnish, and it’s the viewer’s task to suss it out. This feat proves most difficult with “Back of a Snowman” (2000), a bronze construction covered in white enamel paint and the only sculpture in the exhibition.

Gary Hume, "Back of a Snowman" (2000) (click to enlarge)

Gary Hume, “Back of a Snowman” (2000) (click to enlarge)

“Back of a Snowman” looks as it sounds: a featureless object (no buttons or carrots for eyes or nose) that resembles one enlarged snowball heaped on top of another. Presented with a blank slate, I looked for beauty and couldn’t find it — and so I gave up. Its blandness offended me; it was boring. Though in hindsight, Hume’s sculpture offers an intriguing concept: perhaps its lack of color and detail is meant to stand out in the space, like a stripped-down mannequin amid dressed-up dolls, to emphasize the futility of our obsession with image. Hume gives us an exposed object to look at, but we don’t know what to do with it; he seems to ask us to stop looking for prettiness and accept plainness, but we cannot.

With Caulfield and Hume exhibited in separate galleries, the Tate seems to have made a careful, studied decision to compare the artists separately, giving each his quarters as though they were a pair of tussling brothers. Though this works fairy well, enabling the viewer to experience the shows in the order she wishes, it feels a tad safe, uninspired. Perhaps the museum could have been more inventive, finding a way to juxtapose their art, forcing Caulfield and Hume to share a room to see how their works complement or leap off the walls at each other, jostling for the viewer’s attention. I’d much rather have moved between the two artists in the same space — after all, isn’t that the point of a double retrospective? Caulfield and Hume were respectively, but not exactly equally, engaging, and because Caulfield was allocated more room, visiting Hume afterwards felt somewhat like an impromptu appendix. Like Kate Moss’s face superimposed with Michael Jackson’s nose, it was interesting, but it didn’t quite fit.

Patrick Caulfield and Gary Hume are both on view at Tate Britain (Millbank, London) through September 1.

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