David Humphrey at McKee

David Humphrey at McKee
Art in America
June, 2000
p. 118


From Serrano's kinky couples to Goldin's voyeurism, Sue Williams's wounds and the Chapmans' adolescent aberrations, the art world seems to have sex on the brain. Yet rarely--perhaps because it could easily come off as sappy--does an artist attempt to portray sex in the context of love. Remarkably, in David Humphrey's recent paintings, stylized images of tangled couples succeed in conveying the sense of vulnerability that can accompany overwhelming love and desire. Here the danger of losing oneself completely in the other is represented by bodies that merge and morph until it becomes difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.

In Co-occurring Conditions, the woman is on top, tickling and teasing, with an expression that says "I've got him now," while the man looks up at her imploring, helpless, his body at once entwined with hers, curled into the fetal position and buried in the ground. Again, in Porous Surfaces Which Include My Face, the woman, though tender, clearly has the upper hand, as the two visages--is it her nose or his?--become one. It's unusual to find such cartoonlike and stylized images (in the manner of Indian miniatures and Japanese prints, which have frequently explored sexual themes) conveying so much personal content. Memories also flit across the canvas, fleeting glimpses of family members, perhaps, or kitschy beloved objects from childhood.

When Humphrey first investigated this subject matter in his last exhibition at McKee, his imagery was much more awkward and the effect more ponderous. Some of that unwieldiness remains in paintings like Waders, where one is quite aware of the various body parts as, well, parts rather than as a sinuous whole. But even the less successful pieces are intriguing, serving as a reminder that what he is attempting is extremely ambitious. Graceful on every level, this recent work has an airy lightness, as well as a playful quality that hasn't been seen in Humphrey's work since his earliest paintings.

While it conveys less sexual intensity, the painting that stands out for its integrated composition, painterly finesse and sheer gorgeousness is Carefree Attitudes. Overlapping layers of scrimlike translucency create a collage of images that appear like mirages within the contour of a face with movie-star eyes. Round-eyed children (perhaps lifted from children's book illustrations), an idealized vision of sailboats, metamorphosing figures--all become one in Humphrey's watery fantasy, like the dreams that occur when one lies half-awake, half-asleep on a summer beach.


-Carol Diehl

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