Conjoined lovers, daydreaming hipsters, crying clowns and zoomorphic creatures are some of the many characters that populate the work of contemporary artist David Humphrey. As a postmodern pluralist, his image making synthesizes photography with painting, gestural abstraction with figuration, and the redesigning of readymade objects into dynamic sculptural ambiguities. His paintings serve as what he calls “interpersonal,” “interobject,” and “interspecies” psychological narratives. He frames “the strangeness of the world,” unfolding it to make visible our subconscious desires through liminal and temporal spaces and beings.
I recently spoke with Humphrey by email about the newly released monograph David Humphrey (2020) published by Fredricks and Freiser. The first monograph produced of Humphrey’s work to date, it spans his unwavering forty-year career.
At a hefty 290 pages, the monograph, edited by artist and writer Davy Lauterbach and including essays by Lytle Shaw and Wayne Koestenbaum, includes color images of paintings, drawings, ceramic sculpture and archival photographs. The essays are witty, fresh and direct, much like Humphrey’s own writing. The book ends with an insightful and playful dialogue between Humphrey and frequent collaborating artist and wife, Jennifer Coates.
The monograph begins with an overview from Lauterbach, which places Humphrey’s career in the emerging social and art historical contexts of the 1980s. He details Humphrey’s artistic foundations, when his paintings looked akin to Surrealism and Pittura Metafisica; Humphrey’s infiltration into the New York art scene during the turbulent 1980s; and the converging dynamics of neo-conservatism, post-colonial and feminist theory, all unraveling at the threshold of postmodernism to yield the multivalent and compelling pictorial language that Humphrey employs today.
Rather than provide a typical review of the monograph, I selected works from a few of his seminal series hoping to unmoor some of the overarching themes and motivations of his prolific mind.
Nitzanah Griffin: Much of the artwork of the eighties and early nineties explored a postmodernist visual language of colliding disparate media, with a heightened emphasis on the figure. Looking at First Supper,1992, a work created from personal family albums, where do you think your work fit in at the time?
David Humphrey: In the eighties I tried to bring an imagination of the body’s insides out into the world of objects and places. I wanted the gooiness of paint to give substance to the less tangible stuff of imagination and memory. But I was frustrated with the way my works were read as being always in a first-person voice (maybe an effect of neo-expressionism). Bringing photography into the language was one way to complicate that reading, to get away from the artist as a singular authentic voice. Spills, splats and other automatisms were another. Working with family pictures staged this drama of unselfing weirdly because the images were snapshots I took as a kid. I would copy the photograph onto the canvas then try to conjure material from within it or layer things over it. I thought my process was analogous to what a fiction writer might do with their experience. Sadly, those memories were ruined by the paintings. Then I decided to push the source material to a past just before I was born: my parents wedding. First Supper is an example. I imagined myself as an alien anthropologist studying the peculiar mating rituals of white people in the 1950’s. I considered it part of a broader conversation about identity that was emerging at that moment.
NG: In the late 90’s, you began a series of paintings entitled Love Teams, which you’ve described as representations around “couplings.” In Sierra Love Team, 1997, an awkwardly mismatched couple in a steamy encounter of foreplay foregrounds a pristine lake set against a snow-covered mountainous landscape. With one hand, the supersized woman leads her lover’s palm into the depths of her pleasure while the other hand, pressed along his chiseled back, is highlighted to activate the moment. Her expressive face, bursting with emotion, seems enlarged and has a familiar, cinematic quality. Steadied in position, the diminutive man folds sharply into her milky flesh, while the moonlight appears cast upon their bodies like a spotlight. As one, the couple seems to allude to notions of surrender and desire, but I also sense a visual metaphorizing of the femme fatal archetype here. Were you looking to the cinema with this painting? Does film theory ever inform your work?
DH: Wow, your description of the painting makes me happy. I like it because your connection to the painting develops in words something analogous to what’s happening between the characters. At the time of Love Teams I was looking at what I thought of as desire rhetorics: images that want us to want something. I thought I could play with those solicitations by crashing incompatible ones into each other: queer, straight, beefcake, cheesecake. The desire people have for each other is a wonder and a mystery that is easily coopted to the interests of power or commerce. The ambivalent challenge for me was to disperse my care, or desire, into a scene that was fucked up. If postmodern collage used heterogeneous image languages in the service of critical distance, I was trying to use those procedures to look at intersubjectivity, what happens between people. Your question urges me to reread the Lacanian/feminist film theory from that time, and its challenging refrain “there is no sexual relation.”
NG: I’d like to discuss the Eisenhower series. In Ass Palette, 2008, two women are in the act of plein air painting. The artist has looked away from mixing colors upon her palette, while her accomplice appears oddly maneuvered, balancing on her crooked head and arm. The earth-toned setting is rendered in gestural abstracted brushstrokes; some flat and brief, others broad, with curvilinear swirls of white outlined as subtle gusts of winds and forming a brilliant field of light beams gleaming atop a perspective landscape to a nondescript modern building. Where do you find inspiration for your “interpersonal” and “interspecies” narratives?
DH: That is a funny painting that probably originated as a throwaway thought/image springing from those two words. But the idea stuck around and seemed worthy of a big painting as I thought about how it stages the labor of painting and a carelessness of libidinized power relations. You can’t see it in the reproduction, but the blobs of paint on the assistant’s ass were squeezed directly onto the canvas, as though it was itself a pallet. Civilization is off in the distance while these two play out an arcadian fantasy of plein air cooperation. There is a whiff of Gaugin in it.
NG: In Ike’s Friends, 2006, also from the Eisenhower series, a kneeling, attractive young woman inhabits a lush pastoral setting. Blotchy bulbs of grass, rendered almost creature-like, intermingle around her feet, body, and coil into her hair, while fluffy animals appear content to support her weight. Her sublime expression seems frozen in time. The sunlight reflected from the tip of her nose and fireball cherry red lips has a glossy, enamel-like sheen.
As a viewer, I want to know the following things: Who or what has blissfully enchanted her? How did she get there? Did she evolve from the earth or is she being taken over by the landscape? I’m fascinated by how your work seems to depict unresolved and enticing psychological narratives that the viewer is lured into and then left to resolve, as in Horsey Love, 2014. Is it your intent that the viewer completes the narrative?
DH: Damn, I’m hypnotized by your descriptions and worry that my answers will be nothing but deflationary. This painting began, like a number of others in the series, as a loose copy of a Dwight Eisenhower painting. His work was nostalgic and amateur and I enjoyed spending time in the strange space of a powerful man making these images that seem to willfully repress any of his experience as President and Supreme Allied Commander. I took his pastoral cue and ran with it into territories he seemed oblivious to: to women, people of color, the ecstatic and unruly power of the living world. It’s a funny painting; her face is frozen but her consciousness boils over into the landscape and buildings as though it were all made of her thought bubbles. The cooperative pets couldn’t possibly understand and maybe I don’t either. I want the painting to have a life that exceeds all the thought and care I put into it.
NG: I’ve been ruminating over ideas concerning the liminal space as a contested space of subjectivity, and the fluidity of existing within and outside of certain social constructs. In viewing works such as Changing Sneakers, 2011, and Crossing, 2015, where you juxtapose the figure with abstraction, I feel like there’s this dynamic and quite beautiful gestural motif in the paintings that may be exploring these notions. Perhaps the commanding yet whimsical swath is what the subconscious or pondering looks like. How may liminality play a role in your storytelling?
DH: Now that you mention it, those two paintings could be poster kids for liminality. They both picture a character in transition, passing between states. Each protagonist is constituted by a mixture of fluid turbulence and more specific signs of individuality. Changing shoes or stepping over a stream promises a transformation that is still tangled in pre-existing terms. I like how the person in Crossing is exiting the painting as well as exiting the image of a singular self. They are a congestion of meaning fragments and other people. I like thinking of what you call the commanding whimsical swaths. Those gestures have a greater material presence on the canvas surface than anything else; they embody a kind of impulsive subjectivity, an interruption or even vandalizing of mimesis. It reminds me of a throw-away moment in the New Yorker’s profile of Fred Moten when he says at a restaurant after not getting the right condiment,
“'I think mayonnaise has a complex kind of relation to the sublime,' he said. 'And I think emulsion does generally. It’s something about that intermediary—I don’t know—place, between being solid and being a liquid, that has a weird relation to the sublime, in the sense that the sublimity of it is in the indefinable nature of it.'”
NG: That’s funny! I’ll have to find the article now. Like Moten, the beauty of your work is how you pictorially imbue these same nuanced, revelatory moments, like a sixth sense of sorts. I’m glad that you described Crossing. After giving it several looks, I still couldn’t describe exactly what I was looking at, but I knew I liked it! I loved that I didn’t understand.
Pivoting to your some of your sculptures, especially Hunter and Quarry,1996. Do the ceramic sculptures work the same way as the Love Teams?
DH: Yes! I am the studio dating service that finds partners for lonely ceramic figurines. I find them at yard sales or thrift stores and embed them into paper pulp to make a biomorphic hybrid. Matching the dog to the squirrel was playing with the idea that hunter and hunted are mutually defining. I also love that these objects have a past, not only of being designed, manufactured and distributed but also purchased and loved, but not anymore.
NG: How should works like Lemon Compote be understood?
DH: That one is a little nuts and no longer exists; the components have wandered off to separate lives in other pieces. It started as a ceramic bowl of lemons joined within the paper pulp to an animal with pink antlers. I wanted to make a pedestal whose exuberance exceeded its humble supporting role. It’s made of scrap wood but I painted the upper part with super shiny modern art colors to make an explosive geometric contrast to the impacted ceramics. That summer I was thinking about roadside vernacular signage, like for vegetable stands or yard sales. I love the blunt formality of something handmade for a simple purpose.
NG: You were a contributing writer for Art issues and a couple other art magazines until 2003. In 2009, in collaboration with designer Geoff Kaplan, you released a collection of essays, articles and criticism in the book titled Blind Handshake. How has writing provided new perspectives on how you approach your work?
DH: I hope all my writing is an extension of what happens in the studio. Blind Handshake was designed as a way to prioritize neither image nor text. I wrote about artworks that I didn’t entirely understand or that were an opportunity to explore a useful idea. I almost never wrote about anything that resembled what I was doing. I was lucky to have an editor at Art issues who liked my writing and pestered me to contribute to each issue. Otherwise, I’d rather be doing something else. I love, though, what having a writing project does to reading. A word or a concept in the text I’m reading will somehow open a thread of associations and note-taking that helps me find a skewed route to the art under consideration.
NG: Using the same imagination you use to describe other artists’ work in unlikely words, how would you describe your current state of mind in the studio?
DH: I’m trying to wander out of myself if I can. I just finished two shows and a big beautiful book by Davy Lauterbach just came out on my work. It seems like a good moment to try out new things, pick up old threads and rethink everything. I’m hoping that what I do next will elude words, especially my own. How can a work be saturated with incipience, with unregulated potential or unexpected affordances?
All images Courtesy of Fredericks and Freiser Gallery, NYC