Hume came to prominence as a member of the Young British Artists generation who studied at Goldsmiths College in London. The Door paintings, his first body of work from the late 1980s and early 1990s, consists of abstract paintings that often recall the double swing doors of hospitals, museums, or cafeterias. The architectural reference of these works and their large, vertical formats reflect the viewer’s own body proportions. Their strength derives from a specific tension between hermetic modernism and mimetic representation. Rendered simply with pre-mixed enamel paint, many of these “doors” bear an unlikely resemblance to human faces: Their formal geometric vocabulary does not obliterate the figurative but instead allows it to return as something uncanny and repressed—as the product of the viewer’s automatic, anthropomorphizing gaze.
The 1990s and early 2000s saw a broadening of Hume’s artistic practice. The Door series was followed by well-known paintings of flowers, plants, birds, nudes and celebrities—paintings that hover in the charged space between abstract and figurative pictorial strategies, ethereal abstraction and ordinary, everyday phenomena. Having painted on canvas and hardboard at the beginning of his career, the artist now favors aluminum panels as a painting surface. His imagery is often taken from mass media and found photographs, which he projects onto the aluminum plates before tracing their contours—either scratching them directly into the enamel or creating three-dimensional “dams” and allowing the gloss paint to pool between them. His palette of pastel colors is often dominated by hues including antique pink, purple, brownish beige, or aquamarine. The high-gloss enamel he uses has the look of plastic when dried, a trait that contributes to both its retro-aesthetic, melancholic appearance and its insistently contemporary feel. Many of his paintings—the superimposed nude outlines of the Water Paintings series (1999), for example, or the paintings and sculptures of his cheerleader-inspired American Tan series (2007)—exude an elusive sexual energy. Other works including his iconic, bronze Snowman sculptures (ongoing since 1997), have a dark, comic edge or make use of drastic, corporeal pictorial content, as exemplified by The Shit and The Cunt (both 2009). For all the apparent banality of their references, each of these works exudes a surprising elegance as well.
Hume’s more recent works bear witness to a further shift in direction, both formally and in terms of content. Painting series such as Mum (2017) or Destroyed School Paintings (2019) and sculpture series including Wonky Wheels (2018) or Ghost Sculptures (2019) increasingly explore the artist’s private memories or can be understood as a personal grappling with such political tragedies as the refugee crisis, the wars in the Middle East and exhausting news cycles. Apart from the expansion of his sculptural practice, his new work is often characterized by his choice of paper as a painting surface. The material is less forgiving than the aluminum and does not allow any reworking, as the enamel Hume uses causes the paper to buckle. The result is a fragile, tactile and melancholic structure that often epitomizes the content of these works and their engagement with mortality and the fragility of memory.
While Hume’s work appears to negotiate pop-culture iconographies, it also short-circuits them with an exploration of the aesthetic, psychological and cultural limits of color and form. The directness with which it expresses both the pleasure and the horror of the decorative paradoxically evokes the sublimity of the ordinary and domestic. All of the artist’s work, regardless of medium, has a kind of characteristic emotional charge—the expression of a singular, provisional sensibility that is enigmatically transmitted to the viewer.