David Humphrey's new work can be seen in solo exhibitions at Fredricks & Freiser, New York, opening November 8, 2012, and at The American University Museum in Washington, DC, opening November 3, 2012.
Bradley Rubenstein: The last time I was at your studio, we were looking at an empty landscape in progress. You said, "This one is just waiting for a protagonist." You were thinking in terms of storytelling -- a part of the picture was the character, another was the set.
David Humphrey: Yes, sometimes the location scout gets ahead of the casting director, who still hasn't received the script. I like thinking of my painting process as an ill-coordinated collaboration, so that more than one role is present within the work, and there's the possibility of a disaster. But that's a different narrative than what appears in the picture, which tends to be relatively simple: owners hang out with their pets, two friends go shopping, a horse lusts after a snowman. Habitat and protagonist, though, is a good working binary for me (like figure and ground) from which meanings can be generated and terms reversed; location becomes protagonist, and characters are displaced from other contexts.
BR: You are referencing a lot of art historical figures, painters as diverse as Churchill and Eisenhower, as well as de Kooning. There is a little irony in these choices, but on some level I sense a certain amount of sincerity too. In using their work you are not simply appropriating their styles; it seems like homages to the work.
DH: Each case is different. I started one series of paintings by making loose copies of Eisenhower’s nostalgic landscapes that I would use as locations for my narrative additions. His paintings were sometimes copies of Hallmark greeting cards, so the images already had a life before Ike or I got our hands on them. The Supreme Allied Commander of the invasion of Europe was such an odd softy in his paintings. De Kooning is another story. I've taken his ways of developing and breaking down images very seriously. My recent use of large gestures is a slightly comic way of saying, “Me too!”
BR: You work in Pennsylvania in the summers, the rest of the year in your New York studio. Is there a difference in what you do in each place? Or does the juxtaposition of quiet and away versus loud and New York add some element of discord to the paintings?
DH: Being in the woods recalibrates my senses -- the quality of my ability to notice changes as soon as I get out of the car. Being in a world of plants shifting in the wind under the changing light is great. Making sculpture makes a great mess and more sense in the country. I’m in love with roadside vernacular sign structures and scrap wood.
BR: There is an interesting "found" quality to some of your sculptures. I'm thinking of things like the snowman installation. It makes sense that having a roving eye to that kind of thing would help shape your sculptural work.
DH: I want my sculpture to balance and sometimes confuse the relation between what is found and what is made. I like to think that incorporating a manufactured object into an artwork is a way of responding to its rhetorical solicitations. I made a series of sculptures that are paper-pulp and hydrocal layered on top of oversized stuffed animals purchased at Kmart. The original’s plush asks to be touched, and that’s what I do with a transformational vengeance.
BR: Bringing it back to the paintings, can you talk a little about how your work has developed? Can you sketch in a little background about where you started?
DH: When I finished art school in the late Seventies and started to look around at the art world, I found it hard to connect my Beckmann/Picasso/Guston figurative painting with the avant-garde work being shown then. But the picture changed quickly as the Eighties got rolling. My work, over time, assimilated aspects of pop and photo painting and became charged with psycho-social content in the context of that moment’s feminism and identity politics. I took a Freudian film theory class with Annette Michelson at NYU that energized and enabled my painting, even though the studies were applied exclusively to film. Because I was an artist among academics, I felt free to bend the concepts to serve my work. I was a heavy-handed neo-surrealist in my twenties, a post-modern idiom hybridizer in my thirties, a born-again amateur in my forties, and now I don't know what the fuck I am.
BR: There is a great picture by Picasso at the Met called "At the Lapin Agile" (1905). It's a self-portrait of Picasso as Harlequin sitting at the Lapin Agile. Next to him is Germaine Pichot, his girlfriend, painted in a totally different style. Then in the background, the Lapin’s owner, Frédé Gérard, is just roughly sketched in. The way all these styles overlap is visually grating. They don’t really connect, but that was the point. Similarly, during the Nineties, there were discordant elements in your pieces, but if you added them up correctly, you got into the psychology of the painting. You were arriving at a new way of telling a story in pictures. How did the work develop after that?
DH: Everyone in the Picasso painting is in a crafted role that seems partly their doing and partly the artist’s. Thank you for connecting "At the Lapin" to my paintings! I've always tried to use the labor of representation as a way to inflect my imagery. The mark-making produces a fiction of the artist as skilled specialist or manager, devotional noticer or anarcho-regressor. It doesn’t seem like there is as developed a language for the authorial voice or the unreliable narrator as there is in literary criticism.
Inhabiting more than one roll is especially useful. I switched to acrylic paint around 2001 as a way to disorient my craft. I used to say that I wanted to paint like the sort-of talented niece of an ice cream store manager who needs an image of a triple scoop cone to put out on the sidewalk. That was when I made my first paintings of kitties. Greeting card companies use adorable images as a way to make money from people who want to subcontract their exchange of feelings. I wanted to conscript those rhetorics into my paintings for other purposes. The pastoralism of my mismatched Love Teams evolved to include twin kitties, puppies, and other companion species. Amateur paintings can be heartbreaking, in the way earnest striving coexists with awkwardness and failure, but also interesting for the way historic picture conventions devolve into vernacular. I was hoping to mine some of that goodness in my paintings and sculpture. Still do.
BR: In some ways you have arrived at an approach to painting that goes beyond a kind of tried-and-true deconstruction of the artist as author. You are sort of approaching a meta-appreciation of painting; in these recent works you aren't just quoting from an historical index of sources, you are getting into, say, de Kooning’s head, when you lift his brushwork.
DH: I try to make paintings that are lively interpretive playmates that invite or stimulate a variety of perspectives. Is it possible to believe that the language of painting in this current state of belatedness or post-post-modernity is evolving a richness and depth in which layers of citation, irony, criticality, and heartfelt directness can coexist productively? I'd rather not have the fiction of the artist produced by my work, or its author effect, be Mr. Meta, the super detached, knowing employer of slippery signifiers and strategic gambits. I’d prefer to be the crying clown. - Bradley Rubenstein
Fredericks & Freiser Gallery is at 536 West 24th Street, New York, NY.
The American University Museum is at 4400 Massachusetts Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.