Patrick Caulfield at Tate Britain – Review

Caulfield famously rejected the moniker Pop Artist, refusing to be attached to that movement; this survey of works highlights instead an origination squarely in the traditional disciplines of fine art and graphic design. The Tate is correct in hanging Caulfield adjacent to the YBA Gary Hume instead of mounting a direct comparison in one show, revealing their inventive use of block colours and linear design to be pleasingly complementary. However where Hume’s art lies in his method, i.e. the process by which images are expanded and abstracted, Caulfield instead opts for draughtsmanlike technical painting, with acute appreciation for the design of objects and graphic design in itself. Indeed, the characterising uniform black outlines of Caulfield’s bright blocks of colour refer more to graphic sign-writing than to Pop Art; what emerges from this show is his truly infectious and unwavering feel for the beauty behind the design in everything from natural flora, to architecture, to the most mundane household objects.



Pottery, 1969

Also like Hume, the methodical way of producing these paintings using a seemingly infinite source of subject matter – architectural and domestic design, interior spaces, the odd portrait – ensures a body of work notable by its consistency, with no sufficient variance to qualify as a ‘departure’. The Tate again has therefore been relieved of curatorial duties, presenting a loosely chronological progression in which we delightfully witness Caulfield exploring his technical capabilities within his self-prescribed framework, interjecting loving references to the graphic sign writing traditions and other inspirations throughout.


Kitchen/Dining/Living 1980

It is a shame that the image most commonly reproduced is 1969’s Pottery, an early work of relatively simple construction: an easy piece to compose and visually receive. It is the later works which explore more creatively the varying factors of design, pattern, plane and three-dimensionality, displaying admirable technical skill, such as in Kitchen/Dining/Living of 1980, a kitsch interior considered in terms of both pattern and perspective simultaneously, the positively stunning casserole on the table the single representationally painted object protruding from the planes. By 2004’s Bishop, the experimentation with planes has even extended to the picture surface: that mundane generic plaster pattern swirled into innumerable domestic houses is here reproduced in relief and coordinated with the pictorial patterns. Elsewhere, Caulfield reproduces a William Morris print so accurately that I thought it was actually a real fragment on first viewing. Indeed, such is his technical painterly skill independent of his grasp of graphic design exhibited in such objects as the casserole that one can only wonder what fabulous work would have been produced had he chosen a strictly representational course.


Bishop, 2004

It is clear that if Caulfield was not such a capable painter, the works would fail to operate in the manner intended. An admirer of design from “[the] sophisticated to cruder shop signs”, this universal appreciation is reflected in his uniformly rendering all subjects with the same procedure. Even the natural as opposed to manufactured design of flowers and vegetables are given similar treatment: in 1975’s Entrance they appear in pattern; a complex dearth of tiny two dimensional planes, and also in naturalistically rendered forms .The meticulously accurate black lines delineating plane and colour are so well worked out as to mask their complex ingenuity (this in itself mirroring the deceptively simple appearance of truly functional design), and so precise as to remove the presence of the artist’s human hand. Everything feels reduced to a pattern or template for the real thing, anonymous of its producer for the sake of functionality; just like the sign writing skill which Caulfield so admired. By this methodology we are taught to admire the beauty and functionality of even the most mundane household objects, crude shop signs or chic interiors we take for granted. This body of work achieves that rare thing one finds in a brilliant artist: the prompting of its viewers to consider their visual surroundings anew.



Gary Hume at Tate Britain – Review

Tate’s decision to run parallel surveys of Hume and Patrick Caulfield – British artists of the YBA and Pop Art eras respectively – is an insightful one; both are producers of aesthetically immediate, two-dimensionally linear paintings, though the labelling of Hume also as a colourist is misplaced and misleading. Intended by Tate as “a focused survey”, it may only be described as such in its gathering of key pieces, arranged loosely chronologically. That no real thematic distinctions may be determined in his body of work demonstrates the predominance of method over content, while the issue of colour remains incidental.

Beautiful 2002

Most significant is his series Flora and Fauna completed in the 1990s, largely due to the method of scoring the linear images into the thickly wet, uniformly coloured paint so lightly that one may only distinguish them upon close viewing. From afar they appear simply as floating blobs of colour, inviting closer inspection. This makes for an exciting ‘reveal’, and prompts us to explore the wider ideas and issues suggested. Perhaps most successful is 2002’s Beautiful, an orange circle with a dark triangular nose (Michael Jackson’s, apparently) plonked in the centre. Only upon getting up close can we see the image of Kate Moss traced almost imperceptibly in the paint’s surface; this ‘reveal’ powerfully provoking us to question today’s idealisation of beauty. The brown on orange colour choices are essentially redundant in the process of reveal; the key elements being one of linearity and content.


The Whole World 2011

It is unfortunate then that in later works Hume’s scoring of the paint is so pronounced that this ‘reveal’ occurrence is eliminated, giving up all contained on first glance. While this enables the paintings to work well in photographs and print (good for poster sales), they are stripped of mystery and – crucially – the clever questioning posed in the earlier works. They become, boringly, pretty pictures. 2011’s The Whole World shows a rose in duotone, the grooves delineating each petal clearly visible. 2004’s Paradise Painting is a series of abstract blobs, perhaps vaguely suggesting a bird. It is hard to deny the irresistible quality of these bright enamel colours – the former purple on black, the latter maroon on pea green – and their glossy surfaces appear viscous, still wet, desiring one to sticky ones fingers in them. This appeal is neatly exploited in placing Hume’s earliest works Hospital Doors at the gallery entrance so everyone gets to fondle them. Little significance can be attached to the selection of colours used however; they appear to have been chosen solely for aesthetic ‘fit’. When one compares this use of colour to Rothko’s immensely powerful ‘multiform’ paintings in which colour appears to have a life of its own, provoking real emotional response in the viewer, Hume’s choice of tone and juxtapositions seems inconsequential on any greater level than just aesthetically pleasant.

The sheer jumble of subjects negates the idea that Hume has explored definitive themes, again revealing method over content to be the dictating force in their production. The Tate has been relieved of its curatorial duties in that there is no real requirement to decide in which order to hang this random collection of portraits and abstracts. Hume selects images from popular magazines and enlarges them using a projector in order to trace them onto the aluminium grounds, abstracting their detail into almost geometric linearity. The artworks therefore may not be seen in terms of ‘fine art’; the art is this process to which any popular image may be selected and applied. In this way the potential to churn out more of the same remains infinite; this survey does not give us any hope Hume might depart from the safely tried and tested.