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Psychosexy: Interview with David Humphrey
by Bradley Rubenstein

New York, Sep. 2012: David Humphrey is a New York artist, born in 1955, who has been showing his paintings and sculpture internationally since the 1980s. Occasionally called a Pop Surrealist, his work hybridizes a variety of depiction schemes and idioms to make works charged with psycho-social content and narrative potential. He is represented by the Fredericks & Freiser Gallery, NY, and is a senior critic at the Yale School of Art. An anthology of his art writing, Blind Handshake, was published by Periscope Publishing and is distributed by Prestel. David Humphrey’s new work can be seen in solo exhibitions at Fredricks & Freiser, opening November 8, 2012, and at The American University Museum in Washington, opening November 3, 2012.

David Humphrey, In the Pond, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 44 x 54 in.; Courtesy of the artist.

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: A series that you are just beginning is one of abstracted trees. You said that these started from a children’s drawing. You were making studies from that, kind of stripping it down until it began to look like a Mondrian. It was becoming a kind of armature that you could hang a lot of other stuff on—very tree-like, conceptually.

DH: Well, you caught me in the early process of developing an image. I wanted to use the madly beautiful engineering of the child’s tree as a way into modernist abstraction. I’ve already made a few small paintings that simplify the geometry and minimize the kid’s multicolored foliage blobs, but my itch is to import some narrative possibilities. Working with a source is a way to let others into the work—to cook up a sense of collaboration.

BR: When you say collaboration, it has a kind of double meaning here: it is in some ways a split-personality thing—you are playing the exquisite corpse game with yourself. But in another sense, you are collaborating with the materials as well.

DH: That’s true, and the risk would be that the so-called collaborative process is a ruse—that mastery and dominance over the materials is masquerading as openness and sociability. Either way, skill is folded into the content along with a quantity of socio-historic associations. I’ve been introducing more spills, over-diluted paint, and reckless gestures to complicate the meaning of the labor while using quotation, citation, and allusion to thicken that meaning.

BR: You are also 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!”

David Humphrey, Kitties on the Wall, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 72 in.; Courtesy of the artist.


BR: Before we get more into the new paintings, I wanted to touch on some of your other activities: you teach a lot, write art criticism (recently anthologized in the book Blind Handshake), and are in a couple of bands. Is all of this feeding into the paintings?

DH: Teaching and playing music with other people are both formalized ways of having a conversation. I like to think of it as an extended series of dialogs in which established artists and students are trying to sort out what matters by looking at art from many perspectives. Teaching affects my work the same way that seeing a lot of exhibitions does—by sharpening my sense of what to avoid, but also by introducing unexpected things to care about. Music is also a very efficient antidote to looking at a lot of other people’s work; it can clear a cluttered mind and restore a vivid sense of the unfolding present.

Writing about art is related but more fraught. Crafting words into sentences that make sense and go somewhere is not like painting and way more unpleasant. The anthology is an attempt to nest the writing into a turbulence of other people’s work and my own to suggest that writing can be an extension of the studio.

BR: What about books and film? Considering the deep narrative qualities to your work…

DH: I’m tearing the plastic off of a new book called Crackpot Poet by Jeremy Sigler as I type these words. I’m reading a few poems at random while answering your question and realize that I’d like the images in my paintings to sneak into people’s brains the way his jabbing poems, like jokes, are sneaking into mine right now. I’ve also been practicing my bass guitar at night before going to bed, and it’s been very helpful to screen a film while my sluggish fingers perform their strengthening repetitions without nagging eyes and meddling brain.

BR: One gets the sense that you actually seek out other interests, not as a distraction to painting, but as an extended part of the process.

DH: Maybe I’m triangulating, or polygonulating. I need to find other perspectives to both orient and disorient what I’m doing in the studio.

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.

David Humphrey, Heat Cycle, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 in.; Courtesy of the artist.


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 Beckman/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: I think maybe something of a hybrid! Makes sense when you look at the way you assimilate things into the painting. One of the most striking aspects was how you were using the photo-derived images in a way that was kind of like Photoshop but in paint. There was also a tremendous psychological component to the way the figures interacted. Everything seemed kind of nice on the surface, but you sensed a tension underlying the image.

DH: The emergence of consumer-level imaging software was not just a great tool for constructing images, but also provided a working metaphor (albeit limited) for how memory, perception, and imagination dynamically interact in the mind. I made a lot of digital prints but was most interested in how the computer’s logic could be absorbed in the emphatically material practice of painting. The computer might have operated as a prosthetic mind, but I wanted to see what happened when output was through the body and stinky wet paint. I made a series of paintings called Love Teams that pictured embracing couples derived from very different sources, mostly beefcake and cheesecake. The computer could help enact my deranged dating service: naked guys from period physique magazines could be joined to nudes from student figure paintings; a George Quaintance toreador could tangle into a calendar pinup.

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 role 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: When you say you are “inhabiting the role,” you are bringing the act of painting into a theatrical vernacular. A kind of Method Painting. It allows you to make these jumps in style and painterly syntax while keeping everything unified by contextualizing it under the idea of it being a “role.” When you made the change-up to acrylics, your work, in my opinion, really opened up. You did that show about Walt Disney. You used Churchill and Eisenhower as “characters.” You really created a whole painting world to roam around in.

DH: I hope it’s possible for painting to engage socio-historic subjects in unexpected ways. We are so habituated to see a painting as a reflection of the artist and his or her intentions that it still seems exciting to unsettle them, perhaps at the cost of losing a stable, branded status. Still, I’m happiest when I make a painting that cracks me up, where I half recognize myself in the new object.

David Humphrey, In Character, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 72 in.; Courtesy of the artist.


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


ArtSlant would like to thank David Humphrey for his assistance in making this interview possible.

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