By Karen Wilkin
“David Humphrey: Arms of the Law,” at Fredericks & Freiser in Chelsea, explored related territory even more explicitly. In his most successful works, Humphrey referred to recognizable, disturbing, recent events without lapsing into illustration or compromising his long-standing investigation of the expressive possibilities of different painting languages—collisions of Ab Ex swipes, hard-edge description, near-commercial patterning, and more, in the same painting. The allusive titles—As One, No Knock, On the Ground—needed no expansion for anyone even marginally aware of Black Lives Matter protests and the horrific incidents of police brutality that provoked them. I suspect we react to them the way the first viewers of Géricault’s enormous painting of desperate shipwreck victims did to “Shipwreck Scene,” the original title of The Raft of the Medusa, when it was initially exhibited. Those shorthand indicators encouraged us to read the more open-ended images as Humphrey intended, reinforcing the visual clues. The title, As One, for example, prompted us to intuit overscaled, silhouetted splays and splotches as a milling crowd, even as the blunt, dark shapes unspooling against an expanse of pale orange and blue threatened to become an inkblot-like abstraction. But when we began to focus on the meticulously catalogued debris that established a ground plane and noticed the small, stylized figure, lower left, that expanded the space, we found ourselves witnessing a rowdy, albeit nonspecific protest. Similarly, the bulbous, brown-black knot that filled most of On the Ground, against a loosely brushed field of luminous blue and dull purple, began to declare itself as a compressed version of the perpetrators and victim of “an incident involving the police,” transformed into a single, indescribable, eloquent shape, poised above a plane littered with carefully depicted, sinister detritus. Provoked by the title and informed by all we have read and seen of the George Floyd killing, did we interpret the burgeoning shape more specifically than we might have under other circumstances? Maybe. But On the Ground was a dazzling painting nonetheless.
The strongest works were the most ambiguous, reminding us of recent iniquities without letting us stop thinking about the history of painting. The modest but powerful No Knock dazzled, at first, with its pale, light-struck planes and starburst of pink and green, floating above the small, trapped figure of a brown-skinned woman with a troubled gaze. But we soon recognized the shape on the right as the back of the enormous bullet head of a white-skinned man, cropped by the canvas edge. We noted how the pink of the starburst repeated on his ear, knitting the collapsed space together, chiming with the woman’s green shirt and a blotch of more intense pink. That blotch suddenly began to read as a wound, as the title wrenched us from appreciating Humphrey’s visual intelligence to thinking about the assault on Breonna Taylor. Not every painting worked on so many levels. Some became overly specific. We could acknowledge Humphrey’s playing fast and loose with spatial reference, touch, and painting languages, but stopped there. The best works kept us toggling between aesthetic considerations and awareness of our distressing times.