Issue Number: 96
Over a picnic lunch in Gary Hume RA’s studio, Sarah Greenberg talks to the painter about his transatlantic life
Gary Hume alfresco with a Fortnum and Mason picnic basket Photograph by Julian Anderson
The painter Gary Hume RA does not like to leave his studio, so when I invited him to lunch near the Royal Academy, he suggested instead that I pack a picnic from Fortnum and Mason and drop by. Happily, I discovered that I could order a hamper online and have it delivered across town to his studio near Old Street.
When I arrive, we unpack the old-fashioned wicker basket, laden with luxury picnic fare – caviar, foie gras and poached wild salmon – in the incongruous surroundings of his ultra-modern converted industrial building.
‘I feel like I’m being fattened up for slaughter,’ he jokes, as we set the picnic table on his patio. ‘Soon you’ll be referring to me as the gargantuan Mr Hume and passing me another ramekin of Stilton!’
There seems no risk of that for the moment, since he spends several months each year working the land on his farm in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. ‘When we bought it, I had a limited amount of money and up there you can get privacy, land and beauty for very little. I didn’t want to retire to the English countryside with my ill-gotten gains and play the gentleman. America offers an alternative life and I am an alternative person when I’m there. I could go as an immigrant and still feel that I had to do something.
‘Normally I go for the summer and in February for the maple syrup season. I tap my trees, collect the sap and then boil it down in the sugar shack there.’ Other artists wax lyrical about pressing their Tuscan olives, but Hume is the only one I know to boast of his maple syrup.
He enjoys being close to nature on his farm: ‘I’m on the land all the time, growing vegetables and painting – the first thing we did was build the studio, otherwise I wouldn’t function.’
Is the way he makes art different in the Catskills? ‘Yes, I’m not competitive there. I forget about the world, because I don’t stay in contact with anything. I’m just painting. I’m not in a constant state of anxiety about how I fit in with the world. Whereas when I’m in London I’m aware of everything that goes on and I feel competitive with everybody.’
This surprises me. Hume has always seemed the coolest and calmest of the YBAs who shot to fame in the 1990s and exhibited in the RA’s 1997 ‘Sensation’ show. His trademark Dulux paintings that focus the eyes on glossy surfaces – from hospital doors to Kate Moss – have become contemporary icons. He represented Britain at the 1999 Venice Biennale, was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1996 and sells his work at White Cube, one of the top contemporary galleries in the world.
Does he need to escape from all this on his farm? ‘I like being surrounded by nature all the time there. You work hard at it, but it remains utterly indifferent, and that’s a relief when you spend your whole life trying to make things that don’t have any indifference about them.’
Hume’s transatlantic experience has inspired a phenomenal new body of work, on display in ‘American Tan’, his solo show this September. The walls of his vast studio are lined with more than a year’s worth of work: dozens of large-scale paintings on aluminium, as well as sculptures and maquettes. 'I called it that because when the American sun shines we are all in its light, getting a tan or a sunburn, depending on how you look at it.’
The paintings burst with the bright iconography of American culture – pompoms and cheerleaders, flags and sneakers – but there is a subdued side. ‘Being over there you get a sense of the American dream, which I’ve always been fond of. It seems sour at the moment. It’s not the people, it’s their government, so to me it feels like the frittering away of a dream.
In upstate New York, there are banners saying, “We support our troops” or “Johnny’s been gone for however many days”. It’s futile, spoiling what America is supposed to stand for. So a lot of these paintings are about a lost innocence.’
He points to a purple-hued drip painting, different from the other, more figurative works in the room. ‘That one’s about neutering Jackson Pollock. His kind of heroic American painting isn’t possible any more.’
Hume has foregone his American vacation this summer to work on his upcoming show. He paints all day, then reviews the paintings at night: ‘If I only worked during the day, it would all grind to a halt. During the day you worry, you’re trying to sort things out and don’t have the courage. But as soon as the notional working day is finished, the bravery level goes up.’
While he is welcoming and generous with his time during our long lunch, it is clear that I am interrupting his usual routine. Given Hume’s solitary nature, did he have misgivings about joining the RA, which is in some ways an artists club? He says he found the time commitment of serving on Council a challenge, but he enjoys the artist-run nature of the place and ‘the fantastic shows. You see art at the RA that you’d never see anywhere else.’
If he could make one change, it would be to elect more women: ‘a room full of men and one full of men and women are completely different things’. But he hopes that will happen organically, as more artists of his generation are elected.
He enjoys the democratic nature of the Summer Exhibition and this year sent in painted reliefs with torn rubbish bags, which perplexed some viewers. ‘They were difficult and nothing to do with my signature style – I was using the show to give myself some elbow room. It’s really important to fight for it because otherwise you paint yourself into a corner.’
For Hume, the summer show is a chance to let go: ‘I treat it as a day out, rather than an exhibition. I wander through the crowded woodland and see if I can spot some bluebells.’
American Tan, White Cube, Mason’s Yard, London (020 7930 5373; www.whitecube.com), 5 Sep–6 Oct; picnic generously provided by Fortnum and Mason.