Tom Humphreys, A4 Coffin, 2012, pastel, charcoal, and acrylic on paper, aluminum, wood, glass, 48 1/2 × 34 1/2 × 3".

Tom Humphreys, A4 Coffin, 2012, pastel, charcoal, and acrylic on paper, aluminum, wood, glass, 48 1/2 × 34 1/2 × 3".

Tom Humphreys

High Art

Tom Humphreys, A4 Coffin, 2012, pastel, charcoal, and acrylic on paper, aluminum, wood, glass, 48 1/2 × 34 1/2 × 3".

At first glance, the six ceramic tile grids in Tom Humphreys’s exhibition “Tours”—all Untitled, 2014—looked like a return to the sort of 1980s postmodernism that superimposed contradictory styles. Each industrially produced tile was fired twice: first with an earthenware ceramic glaze, at roughly 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, and again at about 900 degrees, after a ceramic photographic transfer. The initial coat of glaze was applied either with hands or a cloth, sometimes liberally, resulting in complex imperfections such as minute spatters of black metallic globules. Before the second firing, Humphreys layered nearly life-size digital photographs of people on the street, piece by piece, across multiple tiles. They are cropped to silhouette their subjects’ bodies; only in one example is any background, a parking lot, visible. In a literal reversal of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s “Heads,” 2000–2002, showing passersby surreptitiously photographed in Times Square, Humphreys’s figures all have their backs to the viewer, refusing the sort of direct confrontation or voyeurism that landed DiCorcia in a lawsuit. Individuality is obscured only to a point, however. The details we can discern—gender (three women, two men), hairstyle (up, down, long, short), shoes (heels, flats, sneakers, boots, flip-flops), clothes (baggy jeans, tight leggings, shorts, tank tops, jackets), accoutrements (a purse, a baby carriage), and gestures (one of the men scratches the back of his head, conveying anxiety)—become all the more conspicuous, sorting the figures into ambiguous demographics. Almost all of them are seen walking, except for one middle-aged man in flip-flops and ill-fitting jeans who is perhaps waiting for a traffic light or a bus, or is simply in no hurry. For all the contextual questions raised by the pictures, however, this street photography is merely one element in an elaborate craft process through which images are sutured to a traditionally arranged functional component of public and domestic space (albeit hung on the wall, like paintings).

Between 2003 and 2007, Humphreys ran Flaca, an apartment-cum–exhibition space in the East London borough of Hackney, where he worked collaboratively with a group of artists that included Lucie Stahl, Will Benedict, Nora Schultz, and Henning Bohl. With artists sometimes curating, Flaca allowed for the blurring of professional roles and authorial identities, promoting “conversations” between individual practices without privileging a particular style or medium. Humphreys here invoked this pluralistic aesthetic with the inclusion of two older works alongside the tile pieces. A4 Coffin, 2012, a set of three drawings (acrylic, charcoal, and pastel, respectively) in the same frame, was hung between two images of female walkers, the jagged lines in the drawings recalling the linearity of their forms as well as the gestural marks left behind after the first glaze. Outside, 2009, a woodcut print, was just to the left of the woman with the stroller; its gridded pattern echoed the vibrant design on her tights, and of course the tiles themselves.

Humphreys has previously used ceramic plates in his works, recalling, intentionally or not, the work of Julian Schnabel and the art that Fredric Jameson characterized in terms of a “schizophrenic” simultaneity of previously distinct historical moments. Now his gridded tiles make reference to both the transmutation of support into surface in modernist painting and Minimalism’s serial repetition. As much as their surfaces are machine-made and sleek, however, they are layered with (subsequently calcified) indexical traces of the artist’s hand. Lastly, atop these interlaced abstractions is the image—indeed, the figure: a transient, interchangeable, Instagram-era image that has been slowed down, to which attention and detail have been restored. If the rabid quotationism in postmodern art emptied out meaning at the level of content, Humphreys celebrates each and every artistic choice, art history and craft at last one and the same.

Daniel Quiles