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.

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

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