Humm’s paintings draw heavily on art history, in particular the Renaissance and Pop art. From these and other sources, he creates playful mise-en-scènes that allow him to comment on the world around him. His work is often satirical but never censorious, allowing the viewer to engage freely with each work unfettered by conventional orthodoxies.
Executed in oil, Humm employs a palette that serves his subject matter, blending vivid, pop-like colour with rich, Italianate lustre, the latter most evident in his depiction of the materials he drapes over his figures, or deploys as backdrops to lend dramatic emphasis to the works.
Liberated, 2016, is typical of his oeuvre. Here, the artist adopts a classical scene portraying a Sapphic relationship from The Kiss of Justice and Peace, by the sixteenth-century Flemish artist Vincent Sellaer. In Humm’s painting, Sellaer’s allegory of tolerance, which takes its title from the Bible Verse Psalm 85:10, is projected onto a wall, in front of which stand several conservatively-dressed women. The composite scene further recalls the infamous ‘Kiss’ between the leader of the GDR Erich Honecker and his Soviet counterpart Leonid Brezhnev that was painted onto the Berlin Wall by graffiti artist Dmitri Vrubel in celebration of its fall. Here Humm contrasts the liberal and permissive aspects of Renaissance society with the increasing conservatism and extremism of contemporary politics – both the very real threat of another Wall, and the closed, intolerant culture that it symbolises.
In another of the featured works, Adulation, the artist references Edouard Manet’s Olympia. Manet, of course, had himself taken the pose of a supine reclining nude from the annals of art history, only he represented her as a brazen courtesan staring out defiantly from the canvas at the viewer (who is a stand-in for prospective clients). Humm’s model has the same sangfroid: with bold makeup and a cigarette hanging from her lips, as if unaware of the peering group behind her. Jostling, analysing, photographing – her voyeuristic audience is reminiscent of that that surrounds the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris. In turn, Adulation can be seen as an allegory of the tabloid press and social media’s quest for perfection.
The Apprentices, 2016, makes reference to Sandro Botticelli, and his most recognisable work, The Birth of Venus. In Humm’s painting, Venus is now a studio model, surrounded by a veritable who’s who of contemporary art, who, rather than paint the model, are creating canvases that echo their own signature motifs. Damien Hirst sits closest to the model, painting skulls and butterflies; Jeff Koons is hard at work on a blue balloon figure. Andy Warhol looks out of the frame, feigning his own disinterest and recalling the Pop master’s inimical self-presentation. In a gesture of hubris, Humm himself is depicted in the right-hand corner of the work, holding a decidedly old-fashioned paint palette. The painting references the Romantic notion of the genius artist slaving away in a garret, and contrasts it with the contemporary notion that artists do not need to be painters to achieve art-stardom – as exemplified by Warhol, Hirst and Koons.
The critic Edward Lucie-Smith, who has written extensively on Humm’s work, says: ‘[His] paintings succeed, very often, because they offer the viewer an echo chamber, one that resounds with cultural references, ancient and modern. This description of how they work is a paradox in itself, since paintings are essentially things made to be seen, not to be heard, not to be listened to … One of [the paintings’] most salient common characteristics, however, is the desire to communicate thoughts and ideas in the most efficient way possible. I think there can be no disagreement that this, in fact, is exactly what they do.’