The Strange and Unusual: David Humphrey

Yesterday, my painting department was privileged to have contemporary painter David Humphrey as a visiting artist. I first stumbled across one of Humphrey’s paintings, Ike’s Woods pictured below, a few years ago finding it both humorous and strange; and immediately fell in love with the quirky imagery and bright, poppy color palette. Humphrey aptly dubbed a Pop-Surrealist combines varying identifiable painting techniques and styles often inspired by cliché flea market paintings and amateur art. One would think that this mismatched, mishmash of cartoon characters surrounded by abstract expressionist style brush strokes, sitting in an idyllic pastoral scene reminiscent of a Hallmark greeting card wouldn’t work; however, Humphrey somehow unifies these things into a wonderfully strange homogenized painting. His work speaks outwardly to humor and the ridiculous, but after spending time with Humphrey’s paintings deeper psychological and social questions and comments begin to emerge such as, the relationship between artist and spectator, and the psychology of bonding, lovemaking, attachment, and coupling.

“I try to make paintings that look very conventional, which fail to be normal, but you can’t tell why. And maybe their conventionality is trembling at the edge of breaking down or swerving in some unexpected direction. I like inhabiting that position within a theater of roles.”

Humphrey received his BFA from Maryland Institute, College of Art in 1977 and a MA from New York University in 1980. Born in Germany Humphrey grew up in Pittsburg, PA and currently lives and works in New York City. He has shown nationally and internationally and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize among other awards. In addition to art making Humphrey is a published writer, critic at Yale University, and an occasional curator. His book, an anthology of art writing and criticism entitled Blind Handshake  was published in 2010. The exhibition Deep Cuts curated by Humphrey and Wendy White is currently on view at Anna Kustera in New York thru March 2, 2013. 


Ike’s Woods, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 66″ x 80″


Ike Paints from Life, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 60″ x 72″


Proud Owner, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 44″ x 108″


 Pink Couch, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 60″ x 72″


Ike’s Bridge, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 86″


Kitties, 2002, acrylic on canvas, 60″ x 72″


painting not labeled, 2012


Kicking Back, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 54″ x 44″


 Wave Watcher ,2004, acrylic on canvas


Porous Surfaces Which Include My Face, 1999, oil on canvas, 54″ x 44″


Blue Hand, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 60″ x 72″

“I think may be this question: how does abstraction and representation mix in my painting? It is a desire to create a kind of narrative of the depiction coming into being.” – David Humphrey

{David Humphrey}

{Triton Gallery, LLC}

{Fredericks & Freiser}


6 comments on “The Strange and Unusual: David Humphrey

  1. I was at this talk! I’m not enamored of his use of language. For example, to recycle the quote you have chosen: “It is a desire to create a kind of narrative of the depiction coming into being.”

    This sentence means almost nothing. The depiction of what? Does “the depiction coming into being” refer to the act of painting itself? If so, then he wishes to “create a kind of narrative” of the act of painting. Isn’t that what all painting is? And what “kind”, exactly? How does this relate to his use of both abstraction and representation? The language can mean anything or nothing, so it has no use except to fill up space.

    And it’s not just the imprecision of his language, it’s the use of dressed-up, nonsense words. But enough of that! I didn’t hit “comment” just to complain about the absurdity of art-speak. I’m glad to know that our little town has such a devoted art following.

    And I have to admit that I do admire the willful absurdity of Humphrey’s work. Neither his paintings nor his speech are coherent, but there is room in the world for incoherency, and it can be surprisingly pleasant to see. But the lack of gravitas… I don’t know. It’s almost unbearable, somehow.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment/discussion on David Humphrey’s lecture. Like you I admire, as you said the “willful absurdity” of Humphrey’s work, which is the main reason why I decided to feature his work on my blog. I find his appropriation of cliched painting conventions,though at times formulaic, to be visually appealing and conceptually intriguing. I also agree with your comment on his vague use of language; art-speak is most certainly used to enamor the audience to the point of confusion (though no one would admit they don’t understand what the artist is saying!). I think the quote I selected, which in hindsight probably may not have been the best, does mean as you say create a narrative through the use of abstract and representational forms. Basically I read it as this: the depictions which could be either abstract, a blue blob of paint, or representational, a dog, become characters by co-exiting in the painting. The definition of the word “being” is existence or living; therefore, it suggests that Humphrey aims to animate both the abstract and representational elements through their interactions to then create a narrative. I don’t know if my deciphering of Humphrey’s quote is correct, but I definitely agree with you that Humphrey’s choice of language is in no way definitive. Possibly his incoherency is intentional in order to leave a veil of mystery around his work.

      • “Possibly his incoherency is intentional in order to leave a veil of mystery around his work” I think that hits the nail of the head. And I don’t think that it’s an uncommon or an unusual habit, so in a sense I’m leveling a larger criticism at contemporary art discourse. But I also think that this tendency is understandable. If I were to paint an entirely white canvas, how could I explain what I was doing without being over articulate? In a sense there is nothing to say, and yet something must be said.

        There is a lot to appreciate in Humphrey’s work. He has managed to fold abstraction and post-modern pop together in an almost seamless way. I thought that the Acteon pieces he showed, with the deer being “ripped apart” by puppies, were very funny. I wonder, also, if the figure lying prone with dolphins is a reference to Gauguin’s “Manao Tupapau”.

        Anyway, it’s nice to have a forum to voice my suspicions. What a fine blog you have!

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    • Thanks so much for the compliment, honestly I am not sure if any of my readers have come across any issues viewing my blog on different web browsers. However, I have viewed/updated my bog on safari, firefox, and google chrome and haven’t had any problems. My guess would be that explorer is a little dated and possibly doesn’t work well with all websites?? I am sure there is a forum that can better address your concerns, good luck!

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