Culture: Visual Arts

Review: Patrick Caulfield and Gary Hume at Tate Britain

When I was 18 years old, studying at art college, the painter Robert O. Lenkiewicz waved his arm modestly around his studio and said to me, “You shouldn’t be wasting your time on me. There are far greater contemporary painters you should be studying.”  As a photographer, I was interested in atmosphere created by light, and so it was his similarity to Rembrandt that fascinated me. When I asked, in return, which artists he thought I should be looking at, the list came: Howard Hodgkin, Leon Kossoff, RB Kitaj, Paul Klee, Peter Howson David Hockney, Lucian Freud – a string of the big names I knew, with the addition of Patrick Caulfield. At the time, I dismissed Caulfield as someone not much to do with me. I wanted to capture mood through light – just like Edward Hopper. How wrong could I have been?

Patrick Caulfield Portrait of Juan Gris 1963, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester © The Estate of Patrick Caulfield

Tate Britain have just offered up a double bill. Patrick Caulfield and Gary Hume are an unlikely pair, if you think that they are a generation apart, attached to two different art movements, Caulfield to Pop Art and Hulme to the Young Brit Artists. However, viewed side-by-side, their commonalities become apparent and a seemingly perfect pairing emerges.

Patrick Caulfield After Lunch 1975 Tate © The estate of Patrick Caulfield Photo: Tate Photography

Caulfield’s work juxtaposes a trademark thick black line (reminiscent of an exploded diagram from a Haynes car manual) and flat blocks of colour with hyper-real trompe-l’œil sections that play against the exclusion of depth and perspective. After Lunch, 1975, does this to great effect. A carefully rendered chateau looks almost like a decoupage photograph glued between the cartoonlike lines, until your eyes become aware of the paint. Caulfield nods to the realist or illusionistic by alluding to historical still lifes and landscape painting. References to period decoration give the feeling that you may be looking at enlarged illustrations from interior design magazines.

Similarly, Hume’s expansive high gloss rectangles are seemingly more concerned with the paint and the surface than in perspective. He gives his subjects – flowers, babies, girl’s faces – the flatness of a garage door or a polished coffee table. These pieces appear like furniture not paintings.

Patrick Caulfield Pottery 1969 Tate © The estate of Patrick Caulfield

Both artists have an air of the decorative. The relief steel surfaces in Hume’s work and the collection of banal objects and interiors in Caulfield’s demonstrates a dismissal of any deep, challenging meaning in favour of a constant, repetitious engagement with medium and material. However, amazingly, both capture atmosphere well – Hume, through the carefully observed linear qualities of a face, capturing something very human. And Caulfield, through his mesmeric rendering of light. As flat in tone as the canvasses may be, Window at Night, 1969 places orange and red next to each other to the effect one can only describe as Edward Hopper light, flat, mysterious and lonely. Who knew?

Patrick Caulfield Selected Grapes 1981 British Council Collection

This exhibition, curated by Katharine Stout (Gary Hume) and Clarrie Wallis (Caulfield) rids itself of those irritating information boards and curatorial captions, allowing the work to speak for itself and room for the viewers’ thoughts. Another triumph for Tate.

Patrick Caulfield and Gary Hume, Tate Britain 5 June – 1 Sept.

Words: Justin David

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