Los Angeles

David Humphrey

Patricia Shea Gallery

David Humphrey’s paintings are a vision of family members in the Freudian funhouse, a whirlpool of holes and poles, of leering toothy smirkers with painfully swollen ears. There’s an everybody’s-talking-about-me quality, a buzzy self-consciousness thing going on that jumps from painting to painting and causes the entire body of work to hum with big-time anxiety. A sort of laugh-track esthetic is operating here, in which gaps pave the way to humiliation. These paintings kick around ideas of carnality, of growing up, of composing a facial identity for the camera, of being found out—the compulsion to make up morbid stories about relatives just for the fun of it, because terrible things might’ve happened, or should’ve happened, because being a child in the regimented parental fortress brings out delusions of playful revolt. What you have in Humphrey’s work is Distortville in which family history is repainted with the assistance of actual snapshots as a source of secret messages, gory possibilities (fear of speaking, fear of intimacy, fanny-spanking, panties down around the knees)—not placid exterior, but the inside dope.

There are many nonsensical moments in Humphrey’s work when you don’t know what things are meant to do, and one of the big pleasures of the work appears to be that meaning and concrete understanding are not God. The goal is more the accumulation of material, a layout of the freaky, a getting ecstatic about the nasty, a coming-of-age novel in messy pictures. Ambiguous and multidimensional, Humphrey’s specifically articulated images negate the mundane wisdom of one-dimensional fact. These works set you on a nightmarish quest: you want to scare yourself into a livelier state, which might be nauseating, but it’s also interesting and pure, like standing in front of the mirror, talking through the toothpaste in your mouth to your own ghoulish face, wondering what’s wrong, why so sad, ridiculing your ugliness before someone else does. In Fritz (all work 1992) a bizarre red vapor appears to suck the face of a man into a white-powdered-UFO doughnut; a mawkish daisy is affixed to his lapel, and his ten fingers are scrambled, multiplying into a pile of gray french fries. In Mary B, a pudgy-faced woman’s bewildering stare floats over the crotch of a figure with panties just above the knee. The face is loaded with emotional nuance, the two eyes (delight and terror) play off each other, the corner of the lips suggesting control (or is it pain?). The edge of the rounded chin on her huge, balloony head grazes the slit of the vagina.

The ability to induce pleasure is no simple talent. Daffy, delirious, hallucinogenic, Humphrey’s paintings are incredibly fun to look at (an underrated virtue). Humphrey takes the happy-face idea of retouching a photograph and blasts it into outer space. His color range goes from monochromatic tints of blue, yellow, and green to tones of orange-and-pink-decorator dementia. Hetinkers with backgrounds until they look like skin diseases on sickly wallpaper. His figures straddle a compellingly disturbed fence, between panic and play, desperation and contentment, to go on unanswerable journeys. The artist casts himself in the role of deviate son, surrealist portrait painter, articulating his process, a noble and misunderstood calling, hopping from one painting to another, from one prank to another.

Benjamin Weissman