Gary Hume and the Intertwined Histories of YBAs and White Cube

While collector Charles Saatchi and YBA are inseparable terms, Jay Jopling and White Cube, the gallery he founded in 1993, was—and continues to be—a fundamental proponent of a choice handful of the Young British Artists. Beginning with a tiny space on Duke Street, Jopling gave several of these artists their first solo shows in London, and the means necessary to launch their careers. Following art history studies at Edinburgh University, Jopling moved to London in 1984 and befriended fellow twentysomethings Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Marc Quinn. Quinn would become the first artist to sign with the budding gallerist, and before Saatchi bought the iconic Self (1991)—the self-portrait bust composed of the artist’s own frozen blood—it was Jopling who sped through traffic to get the work from a lab to its refrigerated exhibition destination. After meeting at a bar, Emin struck a £10 deal to send confessional letters to Jopling on a monthly basis for a year; later, in 1993, her “My Major Retrospective”—titled as such because she believed it might be her only solo exhibition, ever—was among the first shows held at the original White Cube. The friendship between Jopling and Hirst is an infamous one, but crucially, it began with Jopling helping the artist to realize his now immortal works, namely the formaldehyde fish tanks.

“The immortality an artist can attain is an immortality unlike any other,” Jopling told the Financial Times in a March 2012 interview. “Artists are always asked who they make work for; often they reply, ‘Myself.’ But Damien says, ‘I make art for people who aren’t born yet.’” This visionary spirit is reflected in Jopling’s own unflinching support of contemporary artists, helping them to ultimately achieve that immortality. He’s had a hand in monumental works, like Christian Marclay’s 2010 film The Clock—for which White Cube and Paula Cooper Gallery provided the funding for nine people to collect footage of clocks for two years—as well as projects by British artist Antony Gormley, who joined the gallery in 1993 and won the Turner Prize the following year for Field for the British Isles, his miniature army of 40,000 terra cotta figures. Gormley has attested to Jopling’s unflinching advocacy, even with noncommercial projects. “You know he wants to push what’s possible, and understands an artist’s interest in that, as well as being a very good businessman. That’s a very rare combination,” the artist explained

With four galleries in London, Hong Kong, and São Paulo, Jopling’s reach extends far beyond the YBAs. However, it is these artists, whose formative years coincided with the rise of White Cube, that remain at the heart of the gallery’s program. This summer is no exception, as the São Paulo branch shows new works by Gary Hume.

Hume made a name for himself by distilling life to glossy house paint, the grey area between figuration and abstraction, and two dimensionality—and, like Jopling, a crucial turn in his career was sparked by meeting the right crowd of Goldsmiths art students. After transferring into the school following a roundabout journey to art, Hume quickly garnered the attention of Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Mat Collishaw, among others (Lucas, a former girlfriend, described him as “easily the least self-conscious person there”) and debuted his breakout works, what would become known as “the door paintings,” at the YBA commencement, Hirst’s 1988 exhibition “Freeze.”

As its title might suggest, Hume’s current show, “Lions and Unicorns,” explores themes of childhood, realized through pastel-colored paintings, marble sculptures, and photographic collages. Hume explains that the works are inspired by the “double-edged sword” that arrives at the age of seven, when a child gains a sense of self and experiences the transition from a child state to a personal state. Considering children’s drawings and the psychological studies behind them, Hume creates his “Mum and Dad” sculptures, inspired by the simplistic way a child might draw their parents, as a series of blobs. The photographic works, created from anonymous studio portraits of infants and adolescents from the 1960s that the artist acquired at a thrift shop, are meditations on projection, and the projections that are impressed upon a child. Presented upside down, these works are meant to represent life before projections, in Hume’s words, “just before we make sense of it”—literally, the time prior to the brain function that makes the retina flip an image to make sense of it. Underneath thick layers of lavender and seafoam green paint, shiny stacks of ovoid orbs, and idyllic images of happy kids, Hume’s works are fraught with psychological underpinnings, insecurity, and existentialism. Visually delightful and psychologically compelling, the works challenge the viewer, and they’ve challenged Hume himself. He ends a discussion of the works explaining that they are “human but they’re not humane” and questions, “can you make a humane object without it being only pretty?”

Delving into the depths of existentialism, the boundaries of abstraction, and a discussion of art’s ability to capture humanity, Hume’s ability to incite contemplation and emotion through extremely simple form exemplifies how artists attain immortality. Over two decades after the heyday of the YBAs and the novelty of the little White Cube on Duke St., both artist and gallery have grown, though in the end, what remains the same is that they continue together to present art for “people who aren’t born yet.”

Casey Lesser

Gary Hume: Lions and Unicorns” is on view at White Cube, São Paulo, June 23rd–Aug. 23rd, 2014.

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