“It’s like making a garden” – Gary Hume RA on printmaking

Published 17 February 2017

He shot to fame as a painter, but for the past 20 years Gary Hume RA has also made prints. Amy Macpherson visits him at the RA Schools’ print workshop ahead of his selling show in the Keeper’s House.

  • With their large, flat blocks of colour and seductive shimmer, Gary Hume RA’s paintings have a graphic simplicity that translates terrifically well into silkscreen and linocut – printmaking techniques that are known for their density of pigment and even distribution of ink. This year Hume has been working with expert print technicians in the Royal Academy Schools to produce three new limited-edition prints, to be sold through RA Editions, in support of students at the Schools. The prints also feature in a spring survey of Hume’s graphic art in the Academy’s Keeper’s House and online, in a selling show spanning a period of almost 20 years.

    While being one of the Young British Artists (YBAs) generation, famous for their embrace of conceptual art, Hume is very much a painter, although his signature material is not oil but household gloss paint, applied to aluminium or MDF. The forms in his paintings inspire his prints, but he has a natural curiosity about the print process, and a reluctance to simply churn out a reproduction of the painted image.

    “I want to make an object when I make a print, and I want to have fun making it,” he explains, when I meet him in the Schools’ workshop. “My printmaking began as purely silkscreen – I did that for a number of years. And then for a short moment they went very computerised. But I didn’t enjoy that because there was no mixing of the inks, no physicality.” The new prints combine screenprinting and computerised laser-cutting technology to create stencilled shapes from wood. These are then inked and printed onto a screenprinted base using the Schools’ Columbian Press, a masterpiece of 19th century engineering that harnesses the power of counterweights and levers to apply considerable force to the inked block – for Hume, there’s something pleasingly analogue about this final step in the process. “You get that lovely schloop [he makes a sharp sucking sound] of the ink on the paper.”

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    Making a screenprint

    Watch a short clip of Gary Hume RA making a print in the RA Schools printmaking workshop.

  • It’s appropriate that this fusion of old and new should take place in the RA Schools. Britain’s longest-running art school has a distinguished history – its alumni include Turner and Constable – but it’s also at the cutting edge of contemporary art practice, with current students embracing multimedia technologies and even virtual reality. It’s the first time that Hume has used this particular combination of techniques and materials, and he’s enjoying the outcome. The outlines of the laser-cut shapes might be precise replications of his sinuously drawn lines, but their wood-grain surfaces create natural – and unpredictable – variations.

    “Each individual print has its own qualities. We’ll print them out and then some of them won’t look any good. It’s an aesthetic choice, like making a garden – it’s nature. How much of that nature are you going to allow, and how much will you refuse?”

  • For Hume, this manipulation of the surface finish brings the prints closer to his paintings in ethos, if not in execution: “The gloss paint reflects light, so you get an awful lot of action in my paintings. I wanted some texture in these prints, to have the action that my paintings have.” Another quality that Hume’s prints and paintings share is ambiguity of subject matter. His source materials are often photographs, but he may zoom in on a detail until it comes close to abstraction. Does it matter to him whether people know what he’s painting? “Historically, not at all,” he answers. “But I’m starting to change my mind and allow things to have a story… I like hearing other people’s stories, so why I am I being so mealy-mouthed with my own?”

    Of the three new prints, one is the straightforward erotic nude Yellow Slip (2017) – “just sex, basically” – and the other two, Ticket (2017) and Keeping Mum (2017), are part of a body of work he has been creating over the last two years with a particularly poignant subject, his mother. “My mum has dementia, so she’s leaving us slowly. Anyone who’s got a loved one who has dementia knows what that’s like, the grieving period – it’s a very strange situation. The paintings are about my mum slowly going.” He describes one of the paintings as a portrait of her, and another simply as “a painting that cries”.

    Along with the catharsis of making these works came an unexpected discovery. “I thought I was making paintings of my mum, but it turned out quite quickly that it’s all about me. I haven’t really given her her own identity. It is absolutely my mum from my eyes, from my emotional standpoint.”

    Hume seems comfortable with the complexity of making a body of work about his mother that is also about himself. Perhaps this isn’t surprising – looking at the range of subjects covered in his Keeper’s House exhibition, multiple layers of meaning crop up again and again, from the American Tan series, with its partly fetishistic, partly satirical take on American cheerleaders, to a 2013 print that is simply titled Migration. It reads as both an image of a bird in a tree, perhaps poised for a migratory journey, and as a map of the world – the branches could be rivers, the blocks of colour geographical boundaries. Is there a hint of political content here? “I never really do social commentary, even though I feel like I ought to because I’m reasonably liberal,” Hume says. “I’m not active in fighting for any cause. I see that where I have abilities is in trying to make things that are very directly human, and the better part of being a human. I’m not someone you could vote for, but… I want to make things that are humane.”

    Gary Hume RA: Prints Pictures is in The Keeper’s House until 24 April 2017. Hume’s limited-edition prints from the exhibition are available from RA Art Sales.

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