Patrick Caulfield and Gary Hume at Tate Britain: Look for the dark, empty spaces behind the technicolour exuberance

New exhibitions showcase two artists from different generations who had a lot in common when it comes to their use of colour and paint.

Patrick Caulfield/Gary Hume
Tate Britain, London SW1

The two London Tates have had a recent run of bright, brash and poppy: last year at Tate Modern there was the megawatt Damien Hirst retrospective, then this year’s cartoontastic Roy Lichtenstein show – two artists who will always have accusations of shiny superficiality flung in their direction. Now, at Tate Britain, are retrospectives of two British painters from different generations (Patrick Caulfield of the swinging Sixties; Gary Hume a Nineties Britart mainstay) who are linked by some of their subject matter and a knack of encapsulating their respective eras – but especially through their use of colour and paint.

With Hume’s unerring, and now famous, employment of household gloss paint and Caulfield’s abandonment of brushwork for the techniques of industrial sign makers, much of the splodgy stuff is, flatly, flat. But like Hirst and Lichtenstein, this overload of apparent shallowness is there to challenge us, not to tranquilise. These may be crowdpleasers, but scratch beneath the surface, the curators seem to be whispering, find the dark, empty spaces behind the technicolour exuberance. Or just revel in period-piece imagery that treads a fine line between kitsch and cool (Caulfield) or makes you do a double take at its darker humour (Hume). It’s OK to laugh.

The two shows run concurrently but separately so you can see them in either order. Being chronologically obsessed, I gravitated first towards the older artist (who died in 2005). In some ways, Caulfield’s work is like one big advert for the Sixties and Seventies. There are the faded retro colours, the groovy plastic furniture, the modernist apartment blocks and beach resorts (Santa Margherita Ligure, 1964), the platters of lurid foodstuffs, the lampshades, telephones and multicoloured vases (Pottery, 1969). It’s a walk through midcentury interior design, a journey into commodity and consumerism where the consumers are only notable by their absence and the objects they have collected.

As such, it’s social documentary as well – here’s an Indian restaurant in orange and red flock (Tandoori Restaurant, 1971), there’s a café with Austin Powers chairs and a wickercovered wine bottle (Café Interior: Afternoon, 1973). I’m reminded of the novel Les Choses (or Things: a Story of the Sixties) by the French writer George Perec, an account of a young couple, told entirely through the objects they possess, while they themselves remain strangely peripheral. It’s a brutal satire on consumer culture. Caulfield seems to suggest something similar – his semi-abstract, peopleless canvases with their blocks of colour have a Marie Celeste eeriness, as if the occupants have just left the room and turned out the lights (Dining Recess, 1972), stumbled woozily into a show (Foyer, 1973) or “stepped away from their desks” (Inner Office, 1973). Furniture is king. At other times we feel voyeuristic, peering up at a lit-up window with no blinds (Window at Night, 1969).

Elsewhere, Caulfield plays more obviously with notions of taste (or lack of it). A series of works in the Seventies and Eighties inserts photo-realist trompe l’oeil scenes or objects into otherwise monochrome canvases, such as in the cobalt blue After Lunch (1975), with its wonderfully tacky Alpine scene – the kind you used to get on the walls of Italian trattorias (and later, Nineties style bars).

In works such as Still Life: Maroochydore (1980-81), with its realistic paella and salade niçoise, we are straight into the realm of lurid 1970s recipe cards, where a lot of the food always looked unnaturally blue. But Still Life: Mother’s Day (1975) is elevated from naffness by its perfect balance of baby pink and blue, one rose and a sad telephone. Again, it strikes you that this could all be so bad if it was by another, inferior artist; as it is, except for some of his more overblown later work, this master draughtsman alchemises flock wallpaper and formica into something sublime.

Hume’s colour palette is similarly vivid, but, as befitting the era he comes out of – that Groovy fruit: Selected Grapes (1981) by Patrick Caulfield of Britpop, Kate Moss and postmodern irony – his wit is more barbed, his outlook more sceptical. And this is an older, more reflective Hume. Despite the sometimes overpowering expanses of gloss, his paintings are never static and lifeless. There is work on show spanning 20 years, from familiar early pieces such as Blackbird (1998) and the hilariously titled Tony Blackburn (1994) – a purply shamrock-like smudge bookended by black, pink and yellow – to recent work such as The Cradle (2011), a Hello Kitty-hued, manga-looking blancmange baby, and The Moon (2009), in which a cheerleader’s pom-pom-thrusting arm part obscures that celestial body.

To my mind, it’s Hume’s portraits that are most biting. Beautiful (2002) is a geometric celebrity mash-up, imposing Michael Jackson’s nose on the ghost of Kate Moss’s face on a big tangerine disc. Green Nicola (2003) presents a khaki-faced woman peering out from a curtain of straw-blonde hair: funny yet unnerving, like some sort of nightmarish mummer. A 2011 work, Anxiety and the Horse: Angela Merkel ambiguously presents the German chancellor as a wide-open yellow mouth attached to a frog-green visage: is this savage or affectionate, or are such readings irrelevant anyway?

Perhaps the one sculpture in the show encompasses Hume’s many-layered approach to portraiture. In Back of a Snowman we feel like we’re in a bad dream, constantly walking around trying to find its non-existent face. There is the sense of all of his figures being similarly obscured, out of reach, hiding.

The exhibitions run until 1 September

Café Interior: Afternoon, 1973 by Patrick Caulfield. Image: Tate

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

Illustration by James Albon
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The life and times of the London cycle courier

Bike messengers no longer comprise the militia they resembled when the Tories were turning London into a city of finance. But they still trail a thrillingly reckless air of romance.

It was as if I’d accidentally stumbled into some secret cell from which an insurrection was being planned. The four or five mechanics and cycle couriers loosely clustered around the counter, costumed in black clothes that seemed, impossibly, to be skinny and baggy at the same time, had an arachnid quality to them. Static crackled from the radios clipped to their shoulders on the tarpaulin courier bags that arced over their backs like a carapace. They looked like the conspirators of an anarchist revolution, rebuilding bikes from greasy cogs and oil-stained bits of metal as if they were bombs. I was almost disappointed when the one standing behind the counter proved to be cheerfully friendly. Suddenly, they looked endearingly like twentysomething Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the heroic phase in the history of the bicycle courier. London’s roads were arteriosclerotic with traffic, so courier firms that had once despatched vans, motorbikes and scooters across the city increasingly resorted to bike messengers, who were as nimble as they were cheap. The internet hadn’t yet made them half redundant, relegating them to the role of delivering documents that ­require a signature from Soho to the City, or  conveying portable corporate gifts from the City to Mayfair.

In these years the messengers visibly became a tribe. They acquired a more uniform appearance, albeit one that accommodated individual eccentricities; they devised a dialect to lubricate radio communication between couriers and controllers; identified an unofficial headquarters, a bar in Shoreditch called the Foundry; and developed their own rituals of belonging, including the Cycle Messenger World Championships. This annual event, inaugurated in Berlin in 1993, was hosted in London in 1994, when approximately 500 couriers from Europe and the US as well as the UK attended. This is roughly the number of couriers who still fling themselves along the streets of London today, in far more embattled conditions.

It was in 1993, at the acme of the profession and its associated subculture, that the then prime minister, John Major, speaking to the Conservative Group for Europe, made an infamous prognostication about the future of Britain, in which he misused George Orwell’s reference to “hiking” from his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941). “Fifty years on from now,” Major prophesied, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and Pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ . . .” In contrast to this pastoral fantasy, bike messengers seemed to herald a feral future in which, at evening rush hour, as traffic fumes thicken, the congested lanes and streets of cities are convulsed with semi-vagrant, rodent cyclists, all of them addicted to danger, competing with suicidal energy in so-called “alleycat” races.

Major’s imaginary old maids, ideologically speaking, were the sisters of those honest, industrious Englishmen whom Norman Tebbit invoked in 1981 when, as Margaret Thatcher’s employment secretary, he made his notorious claim that, instead of rioting like the current generation of unemployed, his father had “got on his bike and looked for work”. When a cycle courier got on his bike, he wasn’t looking for work, he was working. In this sense, the bike messengers out-tebbited Tebbit. Yet their untamed appearance and their countercultural attitudes aligned them with the sorts of people who relished a riot – the New Age travellers and class warriors who, in the pages of the tabloid press, threatened to stain Thatcher, Tebbit and Major’s pristine vision for Britain. At a time when cycling, in Britain’s political imagination, seemed in danger of becoming an emblematically Conservative activity, cycle couriers were fifth columnists.

Bike messengers no longer comprise the ragged but glorious militia they resembled when the Tories were assaulting London and reconstructing it as a centre of finance. They no longer look like desperadoes or mercenaries among the armies of conventional commuters that traverse the city. But they still trail a derelict charm and a thrillingly reckless air of romance as they hurtle through the streets. Indeed, in some respects, their piratical appeal has grown.

Cycle couriers have managed to survive in the city’s increasingly competitive ecology, subsisting even though a deadly combination of emails and Uber cabs threatens to render them extinct. Such is the persistent value of the autograph (as opposed to some kind of electronic fingerprint, say) that signed documents still need to be ferried from door to door; such is the capital’s ongoing road congestion (and the congestion charge) that it is still quicker to cross it on two wheels than four. Their heightened appeal, though, can perhaps be explained by the fact that they look so attractively fierce and undomesticated beside more rarefied species of cyclists that have evolved in London over the past couple of decades. Among these, the most prominent are middle-aged men in Lycra shorts on racing bikes; commuters in suits on fold-up bikes; and tourists, foreign and domestic, in chinos on bank-branded public hire bikes. (A recent addition to this list is the newest subspecies of courier, employed by the food delivery service Deliveroo. With the only job requirements being to own a bicycle and a smartphone, they can be seen in increasing numbers, huffing and puffing up mild inclines and wobbling under the weight of their giant backpack-boxes full of chow.)

The cycle courier also looks far tougher, far better adapted to the remorseless daily demands of urban life, than another, rather more populous metropolitan species: the hipster. The hipster may or may not be a cyclist: if he rides, it will most likely be a showy, courier-aping, customised “fixie” (fixed-gear) bike. But whether on wheels or on foot, with his spindly legs rigid in drainpipes instead of agile in tights and cut-off combat pants, his beard absurdly sculpted instead of attractively disordered by the force of the elements, the hipster is an ossified, etiolated, even decadent descendant of the cycle courier. In the contemporary capital’s mythological bestiary, bike messengers, their lower bodies inseparable from the sleek metal frames of the machines on which they balance, are the city’s centaurs; hipsters, its plodding satyrs. Messengers, as Emily Chappell explains in the glossary that concludes her new book about being a courier, have a portmanteau term of contempt for “urban cyclists who adopt the supposed style and attitude of cycle couriers without ever having worked as one”: “fakengers”.

Chappell’s book, What Goes Around: a London Cycle Courier’s Story (Guardian Faber), which is fascinating for offering a ­female courier’s memoir of a predominantly male culture, is one of no fewer than three to have been published by couriers or former couriers about the city’s cycle-life in the space of six months. The others are Jon Day’s Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions), a learned handbook on cycling that dignifies cyclists as psychogeographers; and Julian Sayarer’s Messengers: City Tales from a London Bicycle Courier (Arcadia), the most combatively political of the three.

Sayarer’s memoir drily characterises couriering as “the best of all the worst jobs in the world”. In his prologue, he describes a phone conversation in which his agent tries to persuade him to produce a manuscript “about bicycles, and the city”. When Sayarer expresses his reluctance to write another book about “punctures and brakepads” at a publisher’s insistence, the agent admonishes: “If you don’t, mark my words, they will find a name instead of yours to put on that spine!” It transpires that they could have put the names of at least three authors on the spine, all of them highly accomplished prose stylists and compelling narrators.

All three books read a little like threnodies; and it is tempting to see them as symptoms of a subculture that is becoming increasingly conscious of the need to memorialise itself precisely because it is under threat. Chappell, Day and Sayarer feel like anthropologists scrambling to record the language of a threatened tribe; they are compiling a semiotics of urban cycling in the face of its fatal transformation. As the appearance of boutique bike shops, cycle superhighways and bank-sponsored hire bikes implies, if bicycling in 21st-century London is being promoted by politicians, it is also being sanitised, rationalised and privatised.

Revealingly, in his “mayoral foreword” to a document published by Transport for London (TfL) in 2010, Boris Johnson underlined his determination to turn London into what, in a clumsy and faintly sinister portmanteau term, he called “a cyclised city” – “a civilised city where people can ride their bikes safely and easily in a pleasant environment”. Everyone wants to be able to ride their bike safely, and the vast majority of cyclists want Johnson to stop orating and instead introduce stringent legislation to prevent HGVs from killing them at traffic junctions. But not everyone who wants to cycle safely wants London to become a “pleasant environment”. I don’t; and it certainly wouldn’t still be London if it did.

***

In the civilised city of TfL’s “Cycling Revolution”, the commuters, fakengers and sightseers pedalling along the superhighways are inadvertently erasing the record of cycle couriers who pioneered them. The books by Chappell, Day and Sayarer restore the record. Each contains detailed, often vivid descriptions of, for example, the punitive physical discipline that the job demands, which quickly becomes an addiction; the jerry-rigging of equipment fatigued by the road; the encounters with blank-faced representatives of corporate offices; gatherings of the tribe at the likes of the Foundry; the run-ins with black-cab drivers; and, most gripping of all, the alleycat races.

Day recounts one particular race, designed by his brother, also a courier, to be “an urban steeplechase with a fox-hunt theme”. Attaching a fox’s tail to his belt loop and strapping a plastic container filled with liquid to his back, his brother set off through the traffic on his bike, sputtering a trail of white paint through his rear wheel. After a short time, Day himself signalled the beginning of the race with the blast of a horn. “We followed the paint that lay in a splattered line on the tarmac, competing with the other street markings and tracing a ghostly outline of my brother’s journey,” he writes with characteristic flourish.

Sayarer provides a second-hand account of the same alleycat race in his own book. Day’s brother makes an appearance under the identity used by controllers on the couriers’ radio system: “Two-Four brings me up to speed with his life and tells me about his last alleycat: the fox hunt.” Day also plays a cameo role in Chappell’s book, in the guise of the courier “who was now waiting for his DPhil viva to roll around before finally moving on to lecture in modernist fiction at King’s College”. At times it really is as if the names of all three of them appear on the spine of the same book.

Reading these absorbing accounts of bike messengers’ struggle to subsist on the roads of London, the only thing I felt was missing was a sense of the angry inner monologue that, surely, shapes their consciousness as they cycle through the relentlessly hostile traffic. For the most part, admirably, and aside from a few vituperative references to cabbies or cops, Chappell, Day and Sayarer seem “to float above the chaos and ­friction of the city with an unfailing smile” (as Chappell puts it, describing another female courier). When I cycle, I maintain a constant, resentful running commentary, at times all too audible, on the confrontational or careless drivers who threaten to knock me on to the road. It seems hard to believe that professional couriers don’t suffer from the same psychosis: cyclosis.

Matthew Beaumont is the author of “Nightwalking: a Nocturnal History of London” (Verso)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle