David Humphrey creates ecosystems that advertise themselves as something you have seen before. Their profound weirdness creeps up on you: his pictures become stranger and more original with time.
His early paintings balanced a complex but elegant pileup of images and abstract forms that could have been rendered by a large community of talented artists. These freeform juxtapositions floated unbound by gravitational laws. The new paintings retain teams’ worth of style and technique, but the diversity is subtler and coordinated into a more conventional and natural spatial landscape. The distinct elements—mountains, trees, dwellings, vehicles, creatures—appear to be collaged from different sources, but they are assigned and fitted to fulfill an organized master plan in perspective. Still, many of the parts, if they were to be seen in isolation, would appear not as representational but as abstract forms.
The landscapes suggest getaway destinations depicted in travel—agency posters seductive to skiers or sunbathers. Humphrey has done several winter scenes, which range from orby, breasty hillocks to icy, craggy mountains. Trees with snowy toppings like dolloped schlag loiter near pairs of puppies, kittens and fresh-faced kids. Many of the characters in the new paintings are based on gift-shop souvenirs, figurines and toys—objects produced for the mass market with the intention of being simple, pure, cute, and immediately endearing. In Kitties, two grotesquely cuddly felines modeled on, but distorted from, stuffed-animal toys peer out from a small nook in a vast winter wonderland.
But Humphrey’s way of depicting these “lightweight” mementos provokes a measure of anxiety. Most of the personae are disconcertingly immobilized and abstracted into either limbless or highly condensed forms. The brushwork is in places choppy, stabby, or naively simplistic and stylized, self-correcting and inconsistent with the sophisticated, masterful paint handling elsewhere, which subliminally undermines the promise of dreamy perfection. Fussy coats of layered liquid overpainting, deliberate alterations, pentimenti, and transforming scale changes besmirch the untroubled innocents with the weight of worry and experience.
Humphrey’s iconic subjects symbolize youth, beauty, health, and rebirth. But they are actually unemotional empty vessels to be tilled by our own customized imagination and empathy and our need to emit love and adoration. His kittens, puppies, and babies are blank-faced, drugged-looking. Their big eyes and long eyelashes make them look endearingly non-judgmental. Like a greeting card or a pop song about love, they offer prepackaged emotion. They serve as spokes-creatures for the tongue-tied, advocates of the emotionally inarticulate, enabling expression of often difficult and embarrassing admissions of sentimentality, compassion, and vulnerability.
These new pictures conjure bittersweet, heartbroken optimism. They present ephemera in an eternal landscape depicted by an idealist. Humphrey, a writer and teacher as well as a painter, has found a great venue to express and pursue the risky affairs of life.
—Elliott Green is an artist living in New York.