DAVID HUMPHREY with Phong Bui

Just a few hours before his band’s rehearsal, the painter David Humphrey welcomed Rail publisher Phong Bui to his Chelsea studio on an early Sunday afternoon in late October to talk about the recent work, which will be featured at his one-person exhibit David Humphrey: New Paintings at Fredericks and Freiser (November 28 – December 22, 2012), and more.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Phong Bui (Rail): Your idea of a blind handshake, also the title of your hybrid art book/critical essay collection (Periscope, 2009,) seems to suggest more than just the potential rapport between artists and spectators.

David Humphrey: It may even have a dirty overtone, like a hand job, or a secret exchange in which neither party is aware that they are having an exchange. But as far as the relationship between artist and spectator is concerned, it begins when the artist imagines that somebody will be looking at what they made. Even if it’s not a very robust fantasy, it’s still operational. Then when the spectator comes to the work they understand it as an artist’s discourse that seeks a viewer’s involvement in some way. Sometimes I like to include spectator surrogates inside the paintings. They act the role of an absorbed observer, merging into what they are observing the way Michael Fried so eloquently described it.

Rail: I feel this is revealed particularly in works that feature a coupling, for example, in “Sierra Love Team” (1997); the male nude with his back facing the viewer is identical to the one from the painting of the previous year, “Bathers” (1996). The figures are awkward. They’re unaware of their body reflexes; it’s as if their body memory has been taken out of a real, natural context and put in some artificial environment, which intensifies their disunity and incoherence.

Humphrey:  That was the intention—to paint different forms, heterogeneous source materials, as if they were part of the same world and to erase the breaks between them. I could use the psychological set up of coupling as a way to metaphorize collage. I suppose that the dynamic of relationship—the psychology of bonding, lovemaking, attachment, and so on—has kept me interested for a long time. I come back to it as a way to thicken the grammar of picture making.

Rail: When did you fully realize the need to instill or employ such a pictorial device?

“Scratcher,” 2008-2012. Acrylic on canvas. 60 × 72”. Courtesy of Fredericks & Freiser.

Humphrey: It began when I was a young painter in the late ’70s, when post modernism was emerging, when the impulse to break conventional pictorial language apart or mix it up was very pervasive. The assumption was that if you rubbed heterogeneous languages against each other you could either neutralize their power, or draw something else out as a new kind of power. I was interested in the latter. Of course, appropriation art, Neo-Expressionism, New Image painting, and much else were going on at the same time. At first I wasn’t sure that there was a place for what I was doing in the context of the art world, mostly because what I was doing seemed too warm for that cool and analytic climate. But I imagined it possible to perform those detached operations with a humanist language, and still feel that way.

Rail: When I first discovered your work in the late ’80s, when you were showing with David McKee, I could recognize the varied language of multi-imagery that embraced both figuration and abstraction, but when you say that your work was warm, do you mean perhaps it’s more European modernist-based in sentiment?

Humphrey: I was trying to use pictorial language as content. If the paintings conjured a massive presence, I thought at the time, the language of modeling would operate as an authority figure attempting to bind the more wildly associative or grotesque imagery, usually referring to the human body. I looked at a lot of Guston’s late paintings at McKee, who represented his estate and where I was showing.

Rail: Let’s go back to your beginnings briefly then we can go forward again. You were born in Germany but you grew up in Pittsburgh. And unlike many artists from that city, like Philip Pearlstein, Andy Warhol, Mel Bochner, and others who went to Carnegie Mellon, you went to Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) instead. Was there a particular reason?

Humphrey: I looked at a few different schools (my parents vaguely supported the idea of art school but left the process of looking to me). In high school I made some stone carvings and blobby plaster sculptures but hadn’t painted that much or drawn at all. After seeing MICA’s factory-like sculpture department in an old train station I knew I wanted to be part of whatever that was. All the students had been freaks in their high school and didn’t want to deal with academics; I began to feel normal for the first time. But we couldn’t do sculpture right away because of the required foundation program. So I learned how to draw and paint and slowly realized that I might have something to say in those mediums. I was charged by the energy of remediation. Everyone was so talented; they all knew how to draw. I became obsessed and did it all the time in order to catch up; that was my running start.

Rail: Then you spent your senior year at the Studio School. Why?

Humphrey: In the library at MICA I had encountered some catalogs from McKee and Marlborough of Guston’s late work and I fell immediately in love. I thought that he showed the way. I had been poking around in European Modernism and Pop Art but Guston seemed to solve it perfectly. When I looked up the Studio School, Guston was on their masthead as a faculty member along with Leland Bell who dazzled me at MICA with a lecture filled with love, enthusiasm, and sophistication about painting.

Rail: Especially when he talked about Léger, Giacometti, Balthus, and Jean Helion.

Humphrey: When I got to the Studio School, though, neither of them were there [Laughs]. But I was very happy to be in New York. Plus the Studio School had an interesting pedagogy that I hadn’t anticipated. Nic Carone was probably my most influential teacher. He had a way of talking about things that combined rationality and the most peculiar hybrid mysticism or esoteric philosophy.

Rail: Especially Gurdijieff.

Humphrey: Right, combined with cubo-surrealism, which entered my body and still haunts me with its psycho-formal ethos. The classes ahead of me included Christopher Wool and Bobby Bordo. Joyce Pensato and I were there at the same time. I’m sure all of their work has some skewed roots at the Studio School, though in each  case they found an independent way.

Rail:  You were a micro-beat behind the moment of Julien Schnabel and David Salle.

“Clown Posse,” 2012. Acrylic on canvas. 54 × 44”. Courtesy Fredericks & Freiser.

Humphrey: Yes. In fact I was included in a non-movement called “Neo-surrealism,” (according to Dan Cameron’s article “Neo-Surrealism: Having it Both Ways” Arts Magazine, November 1984). My emerging moment was with George Condo, Carroll Dunham, Kenny Scharf, and a few others. We were in a group show called New Hand-Painted Dreams: Contemporary Surrealism at Barbara Gladstone in 1984. I was grouped with these artists but there was no coherence, really. Maybe it was part of a general revivalist sentiment going on in the art world at the time. All kinds of historic moments were being reconsidered and re-contextualized. I was happy to use my work as a way to retell the story of modern art.

Rail: At that time, were you aware of artists like Mike Kelley or Paul McCarthy, for example, whose works explore things that are typically American, such as Disneyland, comics, soap operas, youthful rebellion, B-movies, and so on?

Humphrey: I could easily identify with the methods of Mike Kelley’s first show, Monkey Island and Confusion, at Metro Pictures in 1982. I was really impressed by its dark humor and crackpot thoroughness. It somehow combined eccentric scholarship with a kind of sinister punk attitude. As for McCarthy, I became more aware of his work when I lived in L.A. from 1989 until 1992.

Rail: You then went to graduate school at N.Y.U. and graduated with an M.A in Liberal Studies in 1980. Did this expose you to different ways to think about art?

Humphrey: Yes, after MICA and the Studio School I felt a great desire to remediate my humanities education.

Rail: Because you rebelled against it in high school and you realized that it shouldn’t be postponed too long?

Humphrey: Yes. I already had a very robust studio practice, so I could take classes in the various graduate departments at N.Y.U. without losing momentum. I began with the English department, focusing mostly on the Romantics and literary criticism. Then I moved over to cinema studies, which was in the throes of the first wave of post-Structuralism, Continental theory, and semiotics. Annette Michelson taught one class on psychoanalytic film theory, which required a lot of reading of Freud and Lacan. We watched Godard, Michael Snow, and Hollis Frampton films and had to write a lot. Annette understood that I was an artist, not a Ph.D. candidate like the others, and I think she liked that. She could be very intense, especially when students asked what she considered an irrelevant question—it was painful to watch.

“Changing Sneakers,” 2011. Acrylic on canvas. 60 × 72”. Courtesy Fredericks & Freiser.

Rail: You’re lucky to have studied with her. I admire her writing partly because she refuses to make it too easy to digest, or one-dimensional, which in the end poses greater complexity for the reading of an artwork. I also love her translations, among them Simone de Beauvoir’s Must We Burn De Sade?

Humphrey: I like Annette’s long segment in Yvonne Rainer’s film Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980), where she talks to the camera from behind a desk. We read Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey among others; Arthur Danto and Yvonne Rainer gave talks; Hitchcock and Hollywood cinematic principles were rethought within the context of theory and feminism. It was in Annette’s class that I gained some confidence about my writing. When opportunities to write about art came along later, I was ready.

Rail: Who approached you first?

Humphrey: I think Stephen Westfall, who was the reviews editor for Tema Celeste, asked me to review a Jacqueline Humphries show. That was my first. Then I moved to Los Angeles for a couple years and thought writing might be a way to get involved in the art scene there. I soon began to write for Gary Kornblau’s Art issues, which I continued until the magazine ended in 2003.

Rail: So writing, which began with Annette’s class, offered you a way to exercise what you learned and apply it to things that you see. Does this directly relate to what you make as an artist?

Humphrey: Absolutely. And in some ways Blind Handshake is a bridge that connects writing to making. It’s a refracted manifesto of what I think matters about art, without having to use the first person pronoun.

Rail: You did mention that you tend to write about art that you do not quite comprehend fully or are less able to relate to, so that brings out the same necessity to write as a form of working out what to say about the work.

Humphrey: I try to make artworks the same way. For me, the development of a painting proceeds through a kind of productive disorientation. I make each piece in order to learn something. I tried to make the book Blind Handshake, a remix ofmy writing in collaboration with the designer Geoff Kaplan, as if it came from the studio with that spirit.

Rail: This reminds me of my last conversation with Amy Sillman when she had her show at Sikkema Jenkins in 2006 (which I thought was a breakthrough show for her, partly because the issues of abstraction and figuration were more unified than ever, and the images were frontal and aggressive, as was the paint application). Anyway, she spoke of an arm that emerges out of the genitals, reaching out, and then of a hand coming out from the groin area that tries to touch something or someone. She said that that’s how she feels about having sex. It’s interesting, the whole concept of the simultaneous function of two hands: one is about touching, while the other is about being touched—so different, yet so inseparable from one another.

Humphrey: That’s funny! I try to make paintings in collaboration with myself. I can split off aspects of myself: one hand does these big abstract gestures while the other models the small details of a representational image. To me, painting is evidence of a series of contacts; the matter of paint is deposited by touching, stroking, and pouring in psychologically charged ways.

Rail: Not to mention the various speeds of execution. 

Humphrey: Right. A painting can be a choreography of speeds and a compression of different times.

Rail: In other words you allow the two hands reaching out for something nonspecific in space.

Humphrey: But maybe there’s nothing there. Or maybe there is something but it’s just a feeling of potential contact; that’s interesting.

Rail: Maybe that’s why the figures in Carroll Dunham’s paintings have no eyes.

“Wrestlers,” 2012. Acrylic on canvas. 54 × 44”. Courtesy Fredericks & Freiser.

Humphrey: How do you mean?

Rail: Because they’re feeling their way through space. Actually, I asked him once about the issue of blindness in reference to his figures not ever having eyes, and he responded, “It isn’t that they are blind, it’s just that they never developed eyes.”

Humphrey: He’s a nut.

Rail: The figural presence became unapologetically dominant in the work over the years. Around 2001, 2002, you switched from working in oil to acrylic. There’s a huge leap from, say, one of the strangest paintings, “Zebra” (2000), painted in oil, to “Sno Kids” (2002), painted in acrylic. I suspect you didn’t change mediums simply for technical reasons.

Humphrey: The technical reason was part of it, but the more important thing was that I wanted to disable my skills—I wanted to navigate a disorienting set of procedures. I had been a housepainter when I was young and I loved the simple directness of applying latex paint to a wall. There was something so bold and direct about it. I’m also really interested in amateur painters. All of their technical shortcomings, as they intersect with familiar conventions, speak of a desire and the promise of gratification. The awkward results are a humorous echo of the staged failures of language in postmodernism. I was happy to lose my ability to judge quality as a consequence of loving those vernacular works. My sculptures are mostly joined together from different found ceramic figurines, a process that became the model for how I make the new acrylic paintings.

Rail: But don’t you think that it would be easier for those who have never been trained traditionally, whereas it would be nearly impossible for those who have been trained?

Humphrey: How do you de-skill when you never had any skill? But it’s funny how skill manages to catch up. I’ve started a kind of ritual at the end of each working day in the summer in which I do a single drawing from nature. I find it’s endlessly complex and engaging. I feel a very satisfying growth in my capacity to notice, to see, and to organize form.

Rail: You play the bass in a band, so you would know that however complex some compositions could be, you still practice your scales.

Humphrey: Exactly.

Rail: Just as you mentioned a while ago that you regularly join a life drawing session at Will Cotton’s studio, Myron Stout, while making those tight and exquisite abstract paintings, in fact made endless landscape drawings from life.

Humphrey: The cognitive-motor-perceptual apparatus tangles into the historically loaded language of mark making and a naked person.

Rail: Which brings us to the next issue: Besides the explicit contrast that you intend for both abstraction and figuration to coexist, for example in the painting “Clown Posse” (2012) with the three clown-like boys pissing on the fire with their lipstick-like penises in the bottom right, dominated by loud, active, gestural, robust brushstrokes in the background, while above hovers an eccentric geometric structure. Don’t you think that some viewers may feel that it’s all very wonderfully rehearsed. It separates between an optical space and a kind of reformulation of temporality in relation to the image.

“Kicking Back,” 2012. Acrylic on canvas. 54 × 44”. Courtesy of Fredericks & Freiser.

Humphrey: In some ways the paint pours down like the storming weather that surrounds the boys as they urinate. The rainbow colors are the emblem of their shared task of putting out the fire. Others are running to help but the painting will never advance beyond this smoldering moment of arrested flow.

Rail: Similarly, “Reclined” (2009) depicts a small, frontal head of a man, which oddly enough holds as much of our attention as the more aggressive, broad, and painterly gestures throughout the canvas.

Humphrey: Right, it’s partly our inherited capacity to invest a lot of attention in a face. Faces usually matter more to us than the rest of the visual field. I enjoy spending time depicting a face and toying with our perceptual habits. The tiniest change throws everything off and makes a huge difference in how we recognize the person or what we imagine them to be feeling and thinking.

Rail: Do you think that particular aesthetic decision may have its roots in your love for vernacular culture? I know you collect objects that you find in thrift stores, yard sales, flea markets, or even online.

Humphrey:  Yes. The interesting thing for me about going to a thrift store is that somebody designed most of the objects to be loved; someone else loved them or gave them as a gift before they ended up in the store seeking to be loved again. That history forms an invisible patina of desire and of ownership that helps me with my content and variations.

Rail: Do you remember Hallmark’s famous slogan “when you care enough to send the very best”? Weirdly enough, a few years ago what’s her name that had a reality T.V. show with Lionel Richie’s daughter—

Humphrey: Paris Hilton.

Rail: She sued Hallmark for Photoshopping her face onto a cartoon of a waitress serving a hot plate of food with a speech bubble reading “don’t touch that, it’s hot.”

Humphrey:  Oh my God, that’s funny.

Rail: I’m bringing this up because I could see your painting “Ike Paints from Life” (2006) getting reproduced as a Hallmark card.

Humphrey: That would be amazing [laughs].  And the funny thing is that Ike himself copied Hallmark greeting cards.

Rail: I know.

Humphrey: They’re so well-packaged, so full of intention and comfort.

Rail: Just as you love amateur art I loved watching Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting, or William Alexander’s Original Happy Painter

Humphrey: The only time that I ever saw Bob Ross was when I visited Joan Mitchell in a hotel room while she was visiting New York. She said, “I have got to turn this on, I love Bob Ross. I know he’s on right now.” She said she found him so soothing and relaxing and I thought that was just really hilarious. 

Rail: With phrases like “you can paint as many happy little clouds as you want to,” [laughs] or “you have to have dark to show the light” you can do no wrong. There is no pressure. Anyway, now that we have discussed “Clown Posse” what else can you tell us about this new group of paintings?

Humphrey: Even though these words were written by my wife, the painter Jennifer Coates, for a book we did last year called Pastoral With Pets, it makes a funny epigraph for this show:

The artist’s impulse control is non-existent. He wants to grab everything and lick it, eat your lunch, breathe into your phone. Leave his germs everywhere and laugh too loudly. Hurt people with mean comments. Then nuzzle up to them and ask for love. He is so complicated but so honest.

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Phong Bui

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