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Aspen Art Museum


ArtCrush Honoree: Jacqueline Humphries

In the catalogue essay for Jacqueline Humphries’s 2022 exhibition at Greene Naftali in New York, John Kelsey observed that with Humphries’s work, “epic energy is summoned within a sort of aesthetic twilight zone where painting radically doubts its own truth as a medium.” This is a pithy synopsis of decades of output by a painter who ceaselessly works through the medium’s most beloved clichés, upending its expressionistic virtues, immodestly injecting postmodern strategies into abstraction’s modernist grip—and almost always on an ironically heroic scale.

Humphries’s long-standing position of doubt is understandable. She was a student in the venerated Whitney Independent Study Program (ISP) in 1986, which has long been characterized by its adverse posture toward painting as well as its gravitas. A painting practice imprinted at the ISP in the 1980s needed a quiver of critical strategy if it was to nourish as a cultural enterprise. And, to a great degree, Humphries was pragmatic when she married abstraction to the postmodern discourse of suspicion. The indeterminate, anti-narrative, ironic, writerly and anti-interpretational: all are invoked by Humphries to ensure painting’s semantic instability. The result is an uncompromising and untiring studio engagement directed at painting’s ontological edges.

Her dot paintings from the 1980s were an early investigation into indexical mark-making and an opportunity for Humphries to exploit the painterly dab—not as an expressionistic gesture but as a semi-mechanical action that could yield a mark analogous to typewriter keys. Emptying the process of intention and caprice, she distributed crude dots over a wet ground, producing irregular effects due to gravity and the cadence of application. The repetitive scheme of these early works, rife with inconsistencies and organizational flaws, foregrounded Humphries’s ongoing enthusiasm for mistakes and glitches. Out (1989) furthered the malfunctional qualities manifested in the dot paintings. By carving shallow contours into the ground, the support redirected the artist’s subjective touch; applied blotches of thinned, black paint took their shapes over the white surface from gravitational ow and pooling. Instead of relying on spontaneous gesture, the topographical ridges and grooves functioned as a petri dish for developing non-expressionistic systems of abstract mark-making.
The paintings that followed Out also employed gravity and repetition to produce multi-directional compositions, each one dynamic, inscrutable and overperforming. #5 A (1995) marked a shift into mechanical reproduction: the inkjet print on linen is a mirrored copy of the painting in oil, #5, from the same year. The hackneyed vocabulary of abstract expressionism led Humphries to the crafty, low-tech stencil, as she copied, resized and redistributed paint pours and splatters. In Sunset (Yellow) (1996), she made red pours over a yellow ground, then hand cut stencils of those pours, using them to add spray-painted black versions. This rudimentary tool for semi-accurate, labor-saving graphic reproduction became Humphries’s primary device for mark-making going forward. The stencil, which has become more sophisticated in its production, provides a critical process that denudes originality and meaningful virtuosity by encoding replication. For example, in the allover white-noise pattern of the diptych Oo (2022), the scale and texture achieved by stenciling creates a result similar to industrial printing. Humphries’s emoticon paintings and ASCII-code compositions also rely on stencils to achieve the dense utterances, patterns and sociality of spurious, untrustworthy digital-communication systems. A vast field of upside-down, smiling emoticons stenciled over a washy, blue ground fills :) (2015). In :cat: (2016), silhouetted emojis are stenciled with impasto potency into a gestural patchwork of overworked grids and green smears. The result is an unevenly pixelated image that could have been culled from a generic and unattributable abstract-expressionist painting.

Humphries’s black-light paintings integrate the conditions of viewing into her critical attitude in ways that surpass heroic scale and contrived hanging strategies. Suturing the theatrical effects of sacred spaces with rave culture and populistic carnival experiences, the gimmick value of the spectacular and glowing abstractions is intended to work overly hard to get our attention. Untitled (2016) radiates red as a small, black, opaque dab hovers to the left of a ghostly, blue ash. The framing device delineating the inner edge of the painting is an example of how Humphries integrates codes of screen technology into the Greenbergian picture plane. The skillful mediation of painting’s authoritative signiers in other series is crushed by the immediacy of the aesthetic thrill in this series.

Humphries’s silver paintings are grave in contrast. Their flickering, metallic surfaces host an excess of excavation. They are slower because they seize on the removal of material while still evoking instability brought on by changing light conditions. Untitled (2014) is a frenzy of trace vocabularies that emerge from the action of scraping the surface back to a untied plane with cake knives. Recent paintings, with overlays of painted blood splatters, equate the super abundance of viscous bodily fluid prevalent in schlock horror films with the clichés of authentic painterly expression. Red and green spurts shower JH6122 (2023) in a painting that is humorously wretched and uncontrolled. While Humphries’s relationship to painting’s perennial death is that of disinterest, its demise and resurrection over her fake gestural vocabularies and untied compositional forms. The horror paintings also underscore a waning assumption that there is urgency in the power to negate and subvert painting’s authority.

The artist’s analytical endeavors have never been of more consequence than they are now, in light of painting’s preoccupation with messaging stories—autobiographical and social—all bereft of communication’s tactical competencies. There is no messaging in Humphries’s paintings, only varied deployments of codes of communication and their formal and critical potential. Her steadfast engagement in the rhetoric of skepticism ultimately expands the strictures imposed on painting, a position now commonly rejected by post-criticism, while her practice, foregrounded in a critical attitude, has always been insubordinate to painting’s authority. The lesson Humphries’s work teaches us is that doubt and suspicion seed invention and this can radically change painting’s forms.

On August 2, Jacqueline Humphries will be presented with the Aspen Award for Art at the ArtCrush gala.

A work by Jacqueline Humphries will be auctioned live at the ArtCrush gala on August 2nd. Read more about it here

Article written by Michelle Grabner. Michelle Grabner is an artist, curator and professor in the Department of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.