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IN CONVERSATION: Gary Hume and Ulrich Loock

March 18, 2010 by Ellie

In his first major monograph, published by Other Criteria, Gary Hume's rich, affecting work is granted new life in over 200 full-colour illustrations. The book includes an essay by Iwona Blazwick and an interview between Gary Hume and Ulrich Loock, part of which is published below and recently on Saatchi online.

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Ulrich Loock What were your expectations when you were at Goldsmiths in the late 1980s?

Gary Hume We didn't know anything else, apart from seeing how our tutors' careers had progressed. It appeared that you went through art school, then worked quietly for yourself and had a few shows but nothing much happened. You became a teacher in a provincial college, had some more shows, and then a show in London. Finally you taught in a London college, and over time things started to happen. We thought, why bother with that whole process when you could just go straight to being an artist? I guess this was partly because there was already a thriving British sculpture movement. There were also artists like Julian Opie who had recently left college and were doing really well.

UL Was that view shared by other students?

GH We were partly taught it. We were taught that even though we were students, instead of seeing ourselves as apprentices, we actually were artists. You might be a bit clumsy at it, but even clumsy artists had a place in the vocabulary of naming what it's like to be an artist. So knowing what it's like to be a 23-year-old artist could be as valid as knowing what it's like to be a 45-year-old artist.

UL What was your relationship like with the other students?

GH Incredibly friendly and very competitive. It was a very competitive art school. The best thing about it were the 'crits'. This was when one or two students would present their work to the rest of the class. You'd show your work and the tutor would fold his or her arms, sit back and wait. Then the other students would come at you. It was like playing some terrible game of tennis where you've got five opponents and you have to try and keep returning these balls that are being lobbed at you. But even when you were heavily criticised, this might actually give you the strength to identify your failures and so understand your work better.

UL Was there an atmosphere of anxiety because it was so competitive?

GH No, because we all wanted each other to do well. In general, it was supportive and loving criticism, but with a boot on the end of it.

UL Can you identify what the main issues were that dominated your discussions.

GH It was quite simple as far as I can remember. There was the tail end of the feminist argument and gender politics. It felt like that was the core argument for those students who had just left as we arrived.

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UL Who would have been the artists of this preceding generation?

GH You'd be looking at people like Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman. It was a general philosophy based on gender politics, because then it was much more difficult for women to be taken seriously as artists; men did it and women just followed, although paradoxically, to be a female artist, it seems that you have to bare your soul to be taken seriously, whereas with a man, you don't have to say anything about your own life.

UL But you're saying that the engagement with those issues was coming to an end?

GH Yes, and also, because of the rise of British sculpture it became about form and material. Then there was also a sort of Joseph Beuys school of student; a mystical attempt at shamanism, at creating their own fantasies. And there was the influence of Donald Judd, although paradoxically, he's not terribly conceptual, but more of a spiritual artist. Still, he was regarded as a high priest of conceptualism. So the argument was between a bit of Joseph Beuys, Donald Judd, British sculpture, and maybe for the painters someone like Julian Schnabel with his bombastic expressionism.

UL That's curious, because it sounds as if you were jumping back to the concerns of the '60s and '70s. Concerns with form, with private mythology, etc.

GH Yes, but as a student it always takes a while to catch up.

UL True, but wouldn't you say that the feminist argument and the politicised ideas about art-making, were already in opposition to the notions of the purity of a work?

GH It seemed that the feminist argument allowed artists to again make those forms without them being patriarchal, because the forms in themselves are valueless. Likewise, you can't just carry on going down that rigorous minimalist road, because you'll just repeat ad infinitum, to everybody's total tedium. So to actually take that minimalist aesthetic, without its intellectual rigour, and simply treat something as a beautiful object, as if you'd just found it in The British Museum, was different.

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UL What you're talking about now brings to mind somebody like Robert Gober. Isn't he an artist who took the minimalist aesthetic and infused it with notions of gender, the subjective, these hidden and forbidden moments?

GH Yes, and he was very popular amongst the students.

UL And was that analysed?

GH Well, I'm sure that by many artists it was, but I don't really clearly analyse anything. I look at it and feel if it can be of any use to me.

UL But one could argue that your door paintings were structurally not so far away from this model that we just described.

GH I was very pleased to have found them because they ticked so many boxes. They addressed so many of the ideas that were prevalent at the time. They were clever works because I could paint, which is what I love to do; I could represent something which didn't in itself have a clear narrative, but onto which you could project your own narrative; and represent the actual thing in a picture by painting the actual thing. So this whole fiction, is it a door, or is it not a door? Is it a picture of a door, or an image of a door? Is it a representation of a door, or is it an actual door that doesn't function? All those ideas were going on within minimalism in British sculpture. So the paintings really fitted in there just beautifully. I'd found this jigsaw piece that could satisfy my need to paint, and my intellectual thoughts about art. And for quite a few years I could enjoy that.

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UL I can see that you must have been pleased by the doors' metaphorical potential. So the door is a door, and that could open. It might be closed; there might be something behind it. And then you could also read it as a face. That you have a door; an architectural element that shows a face that may turn into a portrait; a portrait of whom?

GH Well, I thought of it a little bit like chickens. You know, most of us are born in hospitals, and one of the first things we see is the hospital door, so just like a chick who thinks that the first thing it sees is its mother, the hospital door can become that symbolic thing; and can I go through it or not? And the artistic quandary that you're always in is, how do you keep the doors of your mind constantly open in order to be able to carry on finding something to express?

UL Were you conscious at the time of the potential of this kind of exploitation, or exploration of the simple image of a door?

GH When I make anything, I always look at it for hours and hours, and in the process of looking, you think of the arguments for and against the work. When a painting is successful, it's self-satisfied. Even if it has failings, it's satisfied with its failings, that's when you know that the painting's finished. And looking at those door paintings, I could come up with arguments for and against it, and the door would be satisfied with them. It didn't care about any of those arguments, it could hold them and it would still not alter it, only describe it further. And that was a fantastic thing to have found: an object that could actually take on all those things, whereas previously, I was making objects that couldn't hold so many contrary arguments.

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UL Are you saying that you made objects before these that were more explicit, more confining?

GH Yes, and more directly emotional. It always felt like a faux expressionism, a little bit like if I was drunk and I'd be saying something to you, and making a mountain out of a molehill, and when in the morning you repeated it back to me I'd still mean it, but I'd mean it with much less fervour than I'd expressed when I was drunk. So I was making drunk man's art, and I never really liked it because I wanted the art to be more generous than that.

UL So you were pleased to have found something that functioned more like a projection of all these emotions that you might express as a drunk?

GH Yes. I know that everything I make reeks of me because it can't help but reek of me, but I'm not trying to aggrandise my own feelings, I'm trying to make something that can be in the world and have its own sense of self, not be an echo of my sense of self.