Standing in a contemplative pose before the paintings of Jacqueline Humphries is not enough. Rather than let the eyes do all the work, it’s better to move one’s whole body side to side, forward and back.
This interactivity refutes the traditional two-dimensionality of painting and challenges a passive gaze. By layering background and foreground, building up and scraping back, Humphries renders paintings that are visually complex and dynamic. They have a cinematic quality that comes from her ability to manipulate perception through tricks of light and shadow.
Humphries employs a vast visual vocabulary that borrows from many styles, including medieval icons, illumination, film noir, op art, pop art, Modernism and psychedelic art. Ultimately, her paintings are about painting itself. She uses gestural strokes, broad lines, truncated lines, vertical and horizontal lines, scratches, scrapes, smears, and globs and washes of color to create a cacophony of movement and shifting perspectives.
Made up of new works, Forum 75: Jacqueline Humphries, at the Carnegie Museum of Art, was curated by Amanda Donnan, until recently a curator at the museum. On the outside wall of the Forum gallery are two untitled paintings that use silver paint, which Humphries has employed for the past 15 years. While silver paint appears in other works in the show, these two are distinguishable by visual frames painted within the image — one red and one black. Humphries integrates the frame to suggest a television, film or computer screen as commentary on the fact that all images, whether painted or digital, are types of fictions.
Several dot paintings inside the Forum gallery further underscore this premise. The dots are arranged in off-kilter grids and irregular patterns. Here Humphries relies on perceptual tricks to disrupt the stability of the image. The dots overlap and change in size and color; they fall off the edge of the painting and are surrounded by paint splats, x’s of varying sizes, squiggles and scratches, all of which animate the surface while destabilizing and confounding the image.
Visitors who feel uninspired by abstraction should head to the museum’s coatroom gallery to see Humphries’ black-light paintings, whose “ooh, ahh” luminosity registers immediately. Leave it at that or stay a while and let the paintings work their magic. The more you look, the more their surfaces seem transitory, illusory and inscrutable.