‘I really don’t think of foregrounds and backgrounds at all – it’s just a plane. If I think about a background then I’ve suddenly entered into a landscape, and I don’t paint landscapes and I don’t paint pictorial space… I put no effort into making it recede because I have no purpose for doing that. It has to work on the plane for the painting to be successful’ (G. Hume, quoted in D. Barrett, Gary Hume, London 2004).
Rendered in a seductive palette of pink, white and gold, with a single trace of deep red marking its surface, Gary Hume’s Bird on a Branch is a work of sumptuous elegance and formal precision. Executed on a grand scale, its slick, glossy surface creates a luxuriant sheen, alluring in its perfection yet ultimately impenetrable. Created in 1998, the work was included as part of Hume’s exhibition in the British Pavilion of the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999. The serene image of the bird recalls at once the Cloissonist colour planes of Japanese wood carving and the aesthetic of children’s book illustration, taking its place within Hume’s pantheon of ‘flora, fauna and portraiture’ (G. Hume quoted in A. Searle, and D. Batchelor, Gary Hume, exh. cat. XLVIII Venice Biennale, The British Council, London, 1999, p. 15). The work’s mesmerizingly flat surface constitutes a vital part of Hume’s aesthetic. Indeed, as the artist has commented, ‘I really don’t think of foregrounds and backgrounds at all – it’s just a plane. If I think about a background then I’ve suddenly entered into a landscape, and I don’t paint landscapes and I don’t paint pictorial space… I put no effort into making it recede because I have no purpose for doing that. It has to work on the plane for the painting to be successful’ (G. Hume, quoted in D. Barrett, Gary Hume, London 2004). Having come to prominence as a leading figure within the young British art (yBa) movement of the 1990s, this was a time of great success for the artist. Hume’s exhibition at the Biennale followed on from his inclusion in Charles Saatchi’s landmark exhibition Sensation at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1997, the year before the present work was executed. A product of these definitive years, Bird on a Branch was subsequently exhibited at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, the Casa do Muno, Lisbon, and the Kunsthaus Bregenz.
Testament to Hume’s artistic vision, his works intentionally take on a mass-produced aesthetic even though each work is individually and painstakingly crafted by hand. On a surface level this leaves Hume’s minimalized works ripe for comparison with the industrialised aesthetic of Andy Warhol’s screen prints. At the same time, in a manner akin to Damien Hirst’s self-conscious banality, Bird on a Branch operates within Hume’s intentionally vacant aesthetic, calmly delineating his delicate subject matter figure with great slicks of his signature household gloss, ‘impenetrable, domestic stuff’ (G. Hume, quoted in The British Art Show 1990, exh. cat., South Bank Centre, London, 1990, p. 66). Hume sparsely traces his chosen image onto acetate so as to provide just enough information to hint at its origin while leaving it unclear. He then projects the delineation onto his aluminium support, lays it on the floor and begins to add lakes of pure colour with a meticulous precision, taking great care not to disturb the glossy surface with brushstrokes. As Hume has famously claimed, in a playful manner similar to Warhol’s drôle diction, ‘the surface is all you get of me’ (G. Hume, quoted in A. Searle, ‘Shut that Door’, in Frieze, no. 11, Summer 1993, p. 48). In this vein, the critic Lionel Bovier described how Hume’s paintings ‘make way in the end… for a unique image, strongly individual and totally ambiguous’ (L. Bovier, ‘Definitely Something,’ in Parkett, no. 48, 1996, p. 21). Bird on a Branch is an exquisite demonstration of this assertion.