Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / As “Ass Backwards,” the title of David Humphrey’s new show of paintings at Fredericks & Freiser, suggests, they are less in-your-face than much of his recent work. But they remain as busy, visually precise, and narratively provocative as ever, suggesting that it is not Humphrey’s approach to painting but rather his apprehension of the world and his place in it that have changed. In 2014, he projected space just sufficient for discrete individuals, duly separated and recognizing themselves and others as such, as in Shutterbugs and Sidewalk. In his 2017 solo, mounted in the early days of the Trump administration, that space seemed to constrict by virtue of sensory overload, uneasy boundaries, and social distemper, all captured in canvases like Swimmer. By 2019, even comrades were impinging and alien (Friends), headspace was becoming unmanageable (Legislator), and everyday danger – often visually represented by cars, trucks, and motorcycles – lurked more ominously (Overturned). But it was still sardonically amusing.
The new paintings are more solemn and less playful, as though a grim reckoning has been reached and internalized. Setting the mood is Mess, the show’s most visually jarring piece, depicting a rec-room of half-melted and otherwise disintegrated inhabitants and accessories mainly in nauseous blue, red, and pink; only the sneakers are intact. Even the less lugubrious intimate scenes in Living Room, Home Alone, and That Room are still, respectively, diaphanous, claustrophobic, and haunted. In less dire scenarios, individuals have space again, but seemingly at the cost of social contact and warmth, as in the stark Tree Work and Windy Day in Lakewood, the shrouded Behind the Door, and the escapist Into the Woods. A signature Humphrey automobile does appear, in Crane, but it’s suspended, inert, useless. Images are less foreign than real people (Photo Shoot, Big Screen). The only happy beings are animals, who don’t know they are doomed (Colt, Afternoon Stroll).
More than a trace of reflexively sheepish loathing for the privileged artist and the white American middle class writ large has also infiltrated Humphrey’s work. Art Shipping presents a truck about to transport a painting depicting a brutal act of misogynistic torture from the artist’s tranquil, bucolic home. In Domino, with an implicit nod to Kara Walker, a bland white man beholds his morning coffee, blithely suppressing vague concerns about the ultimate source of the sugar that sweetens it. The gap that often exists between artists’ content and circumstances, and their willful obliviousness to it, seem to strike Humphrey as absurd and, perhaps, craven. Collectors, in the eponymous painting, are literally asses. Humphrey may consider himself a bit of one, too.
Despite the show’s snide title, Humphrey has toned down his insouciance in favor of more considered soberness. If he is a reliable narrator – and his oeuvre merits that validation – the new work should be evoke worldly concern: “Ass Backwards” could be construed as a disavowal of the modern idea of progress. Maybe some of that was always latent in Humphrey’s pristine fusions of targeted color, exacting line, and conceptual inventiveness, on the one hand, and discomfiting – sometimes creepy – content, on the other. Drained of mirth, though, the paintings are crueler. R.H. Quaytman, in her catalogue piece for the most recent Jasper Johns retrospective at the Whitney and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, appreciated that Johns’s work was “in sync with” his time yet rued its depersonalization and studied remove from burning issues, which seemed to mimic wider obtuseness. In deconstructing the American flag that Johns so enigmatically cast as a benighted symbol of these disunited states, her 2019 painting The Sun Does Not Move [Dear Johns], now hanging at Glenstone in Potomac, Maryland, is more subdued than anything Humphrey would likely paint. But its bleak thrust is similar to that of his new paintings, and Quaytman herself has noted that the painting is uncharacteristically “melodramatic.” Humphrey’s turn, like hers, must have felt necessary. That makes it all the more compelling.
“David Humphrey: Ass Backwards,” Fredericks & Freiser Gallery, 536 W. 24th Street, New York, NY. Through March 25, 2023.