Patrick Caulfield and Gary Hume paired up for complementary shows at Tate Britain

By Mark Sheerin | 03 June 2013

Exhibition review: Patrick Caulfield/Gary Hume, Tate Britain, London, until September 1 2013

Colour painting of a still life with grapes
Patrick Caulfield, Selected Grapes (1981)© British Council Collection
Two exponents of flat colour from two different generations have been brought together for a pair of complementary shows at Tate Britain which should appeal to all lovers of painting.

And though it might be said that both Patrick Caulfield and Gary Hume are painters’ painters, it might also be said that in this age of spectacle, anyone who still picks up a brush falls into that category.

Certainly there is on display pure pleasure in the medium. Caulfield works in acrylics or oil, mixing well drafted interior furnishings with photorealistic details, be those flowers or food.

Hume, on the other hand, spreads tin-fresh gloss paint across aluminium using a draft excluder to shore the stuff up in ridges across the surface. Both artists share something of a signwriter’s approach, offering sharp lines and a pristine finish.

Colour photo of a semi-abstract painting of a flower
Gary Hume, Tulips (2009)© Private collection. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
But whereas Hume tends towards simplicity and abstraction with minimal choice of colour and little or no detail, Caulfield celebrates the complexity of what still life or interior scenes might contain.

A case in point is his bustling smaller canvas, Office Party, which blends cubist motifs, such as woodgrain, wine bottle and glasses, with a photorealist view out of the window. And this being Caulfield, the flesh and blood merrymakers are nowhere in sight, having left the typewriter and telephone behind as stand ins.

In other words there is plenty of narrative, a quality which Hume finds in short supply. On evidence of the two shows at Tate, the younger artist is more interested in ambiguity than human theatre.

In Paradise Painting Three we see a monumental rendering of a garden bird in song. But look again and the pink background becomes the thighs of a woman; the red beak becomes a vulva. Elsewhere he compounds a painting of an orchid with a portrait of artist Nicola Tyson.

Caulfield’s own taste for tromp l’oeil runs to the inclusion of photorealistic details mixed with highly-drafted scenes. The best known example of this magic touch is that other large work, After Lunch.

Its melancholically blue restaurant scene is livened up by a touristic poster on the wall. But this view of a French chateau turns out to be a virtuoso display of brushwork. For added trickery, Caulfield lets you view it through a thickly drafted goldfish tank.

A picture on the wall may just be a metaphorical window, but it gives us another way to account for the differences between Caulfield and Hume. With its struts and porosity, canvas is itself a window, whereas Hume’s aluminium panels are metaphorical doors - closed ones at that.

Hume has said that the door is a perfect painting and he is perhaps best known for his paintings of doors in institutions such as hospitals.

A newly created set of painted doors open onto his current show. And elsewhere he gives us a barnstorming piece of near Abstract Expressionism with a vast red diptych depicting two barn doors.

Along with mastery of their craft, what both painters share is a light touch when it comes to subject matter. Just as Caulfield studs a hotel façade with a range of unlikely photo-sharp blooms, so Hume gives us an incongruous portrait of 80s DJ Tony Blackburn.
And his finest joke in the current show is a demonic looking infant, just discernible in the gloom. He is here to turn your world upside down, as suggested by the word Baby scrawled back to front across the base of the panel. 

It calls to mind a Jerry Seinfeld gag that young people are here to replace us. Fortunately, what these two shows demonstrate is that younger painters and their elders can co-exist pretty well.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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