Artist Spotlight: David Humphrey speaks with “The Journal of Nostalgia”

“Nostalgia is an elaboration of something deeper, maybe broken or wounded, that seeks fixing through retrospection.”

David Humphrey, 2011

JoN: The first work of yours that comes to mind in regards to “nostalgia” is what I call the “Ike” paintings – works that used Dwight D. Eisenhower’s paintings as a source or point of departure (for me, they were especially resonant, because I also grew up with a portfolio of his “covered bridge” painting reproductions and they are part of my nostalgic past.) How do these images shift in meaning from their original, sentimental intentions into your process?

David Humphrey: Ike Paints From Life. Acrylic on canvas. 60 x 72 inches. 2006. Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, NY

DH: I wrote an essay called Ike and Me where I spelled out some of the ways my modified copies messed around with Ike’s clichéd images. I wanted to treat his earnest normalcy as though it was pathological: normotic. If I can find a way to disorient my way of seeing a highly familiar object, so that a radiant singularity emerges, I am happy. His sentimentality washes into my narrative image as a layered historic overtone. It’s also a way for me to make a work that evolves around a relationship with another person, whose presence haunts the work. There is a startling asymmetry between the supreme allied commander’s fumbling care for the light on an old barn and his navigation of the invasion of Europe.

JoN: You created a large body of work in the early-90′s that was generated by family photos – I believe it was your parent’s wedding. You say in an interview that the family snapshot “establishes a zone of memory…tinged by a sense of loss”. Can you embellish on that- and is it something that still concerns you in your current work?

“In art-school critiques the word nostalgia is commonly used as a club to beat the unthinking sentimentalist.”

"Where's Dad?", 1991, oil on canvas, 54" x 44"

DH: I wanted to intensify the process of making the paintings so that every act of conjuring, defacing or modifying was underwritten by my knowing the people and having grown up within their world. Jokes and indignities could be unleashed but also tenderness and lust. The family-photo images were converted into fictions by my paintings but there remained a sense that truths were buried there. The works both mourned and marveled at the way one’s (my) past was irretrievably lost yet, somehow, still alive in the present. I guess I’m still trying to make paintings that have the layered richness of consciousness, work that braids memory with perception through a language of touch and the wet slippery matter of paint.

JoN: In my view, we experience nostalgia on a number of levels – a “direct” nostalgia (for things we have personally lived) and an “indirect” one (for things that others, such as parents, had lived and left with us). I’m curious what you think about this as a template in the process of art making (layering, erasing, etc.)

"Candleman", 1993, oil on canvas, 26" x 26"

DH: It seems that both levels of nostalgia, when motivating artworks, are uncritical, that the feeling disables the possibility of analysis or distance. In art-school critiques the word nostalgia is commonly used as a club to beat the unthinking sentimentalist. But as a feeling that is sedimented among others in a complex work, nostalgia can be productive. My intuition says that indirect nostalgia is just an elaboration of the direct kind, but perhaps direct nostalgia is an elaboration of something deeper, maybe broken or wounded, that seeks fixing through retrospection.

JoN: When the adjective “nostalgic” is used as a club in a critique it’s being misunderstood, in my opinion, as a partner of “illustrative” and “clichéd”.

Anyway, I agree that both direct and indirect nostalgia are uncritical disablers. I describe one definition of Nostalgia as a highly nuanced but neutral portal that leads to emotional responses which can be comforting or disturbing thoughts, dead-ends or possibilities…the sheer level of engagement it evokes is potentially “productive” in art. I wonder nostalgia is inextricably bound to the art making process, or can we “choose” to frame the process with it – to consciously employ it?

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One response to “Artist Spotlight: David Humphrey speaks with “The Journal of Nostalgia”

  1. I can’t see nostalgia as neutral if pain is built into half of its etymology, but that doesn’t mean that homesickness and longing can’t figure into more complex forms. The nostalgiac artworks that tend to irritate contemporary sensibilities are escapist, passeist, cut-off conservative rebukes to all things new or reactionary values masquerading as universals.

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