"I'm Not an Intellectual Artist, I'm Instinctive": Gary Hume Returns to Canvas

Gary Hume's "Six Poles," 2011
(© The Artist / Photo: Stephen White / Courtesy White Cube)

Artists from the so-called YBA generation usually come with newspaper-friendly tags: the "pickled shark" guy, the "vagina chicken" woman — and in Gary Hume's case: the "shiny gloss on aluminium" man. And there are plenty of gloss on aluminium works in Hume's show "The Indifferent Owl," currently held at White Cube's Mason's Yard and Hoxton Square venues. But these are much more twisted than Hume's one-liner reputation might have led us to believe. In the basement of Mason's Yard, semi-abstract representations of female genitals cohabitate with pictures of birds' heads, while on the floor, a herd of phallic limestone worms sprout out of the concrete floor.

For this show, Hume has also made a dramatic departure and started painting on canvas, eager to reconnect with the medium unhampered by the technicalities of the glossy surface. A few hours before his private view, he caught up with ARTINFO UK to discuss creative anxiety, art history, and why he sometimes prefers to see things from a mole's perspective.

Could you tell me about your exhibition title: "The Innocent Owl"?

I heard an owl tweeting one night. In the morning, I went for a walk in the wood and saw a deflated child's birthday balloon. I then just imagined the owl, with its fantastic neck, watching this deflating balloon going past and its utter indifference to this: the end of the party, this moment of a seven-year-old's happiness, the family, the cakes, the presents. That's all passed now, and the owl is indifferent to it. It just seemed poignant — both in that sense of the end of things, and in the sense of how nature doesn't care about the end of things. Something else will come. For me, a bit more personally, I'm sort of indifferent to the great pageant that is going on, unless it's absolutely in my focus. I'm like an owl: if it looks like a mouse, I will concentrate, if doesn't look like a mouse, I don't care, I'm just going to watch.

Writing for the Guardian, Lynn Barber quoted you saying that you are searching for "permission for the picture to exist." How do you know when an image, or a subject, will allow a painting to be?

It's the other way around. I make something, and often, to allow it to exist, I have to create a permission. I'm anxious and therefore I'm unsure, but if I give the painting a title, or a rationale, than I can feel relaxed. It's a pleasure and an anxiety making pictures. I'm not an intellectual artist, I'm instinctive, but we are a literate culture. People prefer a rationale. So the permissions are often rational permissions. I can tell you that there is a rational position. You don't have to worry about anything, you don't have to look at the painting. I've given you the answer. It's finished with — but that's not how I paint, that's how I allow things to be.

Given the choice, would you rather do without this rational permission?

Yes, I would. Because that's how they are made. I don't live in a rational space when I make things.

For this show, you've started painting on canvas again. What prompted this return to the canvas?

[Gesturing at the large gloss on aluminium pieces surrounding us in the gallery] These paintings, there's an awful lot of work in them. I have my drawing, and than I put my drawing onto the panel, and then I prepare the panel, and that can take weeks and weeks of work. Then I put my color on, which is another creative moment, and then hopefully the painting works, or it becomes a problem, and then there's more creative stuff. But the majority of time is spent making it, not being creative. I just got tired of the work. Those paintings [on canvas], they can't take more than five or ten minutes, whereas these paintings [showing the gloss on aluminium pieces] can take three months.

You needed to go back to a certain immediacy between your idea, or your creative gesture, and the finished product.

Yes. It's a very different way of making things, I'm much less sure about them, because with the paintings on aluminium I can look at the drawing for a long time, I can refine it, and then I can look at the painting for a long time, and wonder how to change it, and what is working, and what isn't working, and make it right. But with those paintings [on canvas], you can't look at them and make them right. They are done. It is what it is. I might be good, it might be terrible. And for me, it's even more difficult because, I can't tell whether it's good or terrible. I can tell for the paintings on aluminium, whether they are good or terrible, but with those [on canvas], I haven't got a clue.

Even now that they are hanging in the gallery?

I like them obviously, and I want them here — partly because I want to say it's about painting. This is a painting show — I know there are sculptures in it — but it's about painting. And those paintings [on canvas] are clearly paintings. Of course these [on aluminium] are paintings, but you can forget they are paintings somehow. Whereas those ones… this is what you do at home, this is a painting.

This return to canvas happens at a moment when, perhaps more than before, you introduce art historical references: Klimt, Rubens, the sculptures themselves are quite Brancusian. Do you feel more comfortable tackling art history now that you are very established in your career and own work?

I don't really feel like I'm tackling art history, but I feel that I can possess what I think of as really good art. I can take it without feeling that it's wholesale robbery. I'm loving it, and I'm making my own work from it, and not feeling that I'm being disrespectful to the art I love, that I'm actually joining in. It wasn't like before. I was desperate to do it but felt like I wasn't allowed. But now, if I am doing it, it just feels right.

I did actually make a sculpture, and I really, really loved it. A friend came, and he really liked it, and then he went: "I'll be back in about an hour." He went off to a bookshop, and came back with a Brancusi book. He opened it and he said: "look!" He opened the book, and it was exactly the same sculpture. So that one had to go in the bin! Even though I love some Brancusi, I don't want to make another Brancusi!

You've said that you are looking at things with a human perspective, but also sometimes from an animal perspective, say, from the perspective of an eagle. Is it a way for you to get out of your own limited self?

It's not a shamanistic thing, it literally is a viewpoint. I'm not always making a painting with me, a human being, looking at the painting. I'm sometimes a worm, or a mole looking at something. And what does a mole see? And then I'll paint what a mole can see. It's not a criticism of the human eye, that we all should be blind moles. It's a desire for being able to see things from a different perspective.

The Arts Council Collection is organizing "Flashback," a show with some of your early works. How do you relate to these? Is your past work something that you still regularly think about? Or is it completely behind you?

The proof will be in the pudding. We haven't hung the show yet. It's not a retrospective at all. It's basically things I own, things I've never sold, so things that nobody wants — there's also a painting from the Tate and two paintings from the Arts Council. I don't know what it's going to be like, although I saw one painting in storage the other day. It was next to a Patrick Caulfield painting, and it stood up to him, so that was very pleasing.