In a 2009 interview with Cecily Brown in Bomb magazine, Jacqueline Humphries articulated her aspirations: “Postmodernism is supposed to be all about appropriation and cynicism; about adopting an attitude more suited to being intellectually advanced,” she said. “But why not appropriate an attitude of seriousness, or even sincerity, whereby the distancing of cynicism is removed?” In this recent exhibition, Humphries showed how to do just that without straying too far from a cool-headed critique of painting, or from her own painterly identity, with its reductive abstract language.
Humphries’s basic colors in the 10 new works (all 2012 and untitled; most 90 by 96 inches) are her now-signature reflexive and seductive metallic silver—which she mixes herself—and black. The degree of density in black is the main variant among the paintings. In some, there are merely a few smears of black on the silver, resulting in a quiet, iridescently minimalist composition. In others, black is smudged all over, nearly obscuring the silver and forming dramatically dense gradations of strokes that recall the brushwork in Chinese ink paintings. Black lines frame some of the compositions to deadpan effect, paradoxically delineating the “non-image” in what Humphries calls her “non-paintings.” Moreover, her brushstrokes and agitations of the silver often transgress those framing lines, suggesting a sardonic rejection of the confinements of painterly space, and hinting that she is perhaps unwilling to abide by her own restrictions.
Other colors appear in disparate bursts or in stripes. In the heavily speckled painting that was displayed on its own in an alcove, pink, blue, red and brown peeked out in the areas where the silver had been partially scraped away. This painting, as well as another in which the silver looked as if it had been singed away from the top right corner, exposing a bit of colorfully blotched canvas, reveal that Humphries’s starting point is often a gestural abstraction that she then blankets with the silver. The peekaboo colors indicate a fundamental struggle between that impulse toward gestural abstraction and a more cerebral, contemporary attitude that impels Humphries to cover up or sublimate such out-of-favor inclinations. To be sure, the works seem to be driven by noncommitted, I’m-not-invested-in-this, almost hiccupped marks. Yet rather than a reiteration of cheeky dubiousness or ambivalence toward painting and its possibilities, as in the work of some of her peers (say, Michael Krebber and his ever more numerous disciples), Humphries’s low-key interactions with the strident silver project an assertive, self-assured disposition and yield her most immersive compositions to date.
Humphries’s desire to “appropriate an attitude of seriousness” is shared by a number of other painters, most notably Rebecca Morris and Charline von Heyl. But whereas such artists heavily and overtly rely on the historical references they sample, Humphries has found a perfectly synthesized pitch that is all her own. And the notes she hit this time around suggested interesting new directions within the ongoing dialogue about painting.
Photo: Jacqueline Humphries: Untitled, 2012, oil on canvas, 90 by 96 inches; at Greene Naftali.