Jacqueline Humphries presents new paintings at Modern Art in London this month. Here’s an excerpt from a conversation between Humphries and painter Cecily Brown in 2009. (via Tatiana Berg)
Cecily Brown Let’s talk about how your paintings discourage stationary viewing. They seem to want to be perceived from multiple points of view. The reflectivity of your silver paintings especially emphasizes the unfixed nature of things; do you think of them as having one preferred point of view? Or does that change as our physical relationship to the painting changes?
Jacqueline Humphries What fascinates me is how little I can control their behavior in new situations. An image will coalesce and then disintegrate, giving way to another reading that sort of comes out of the background. To me some parts of a painting appear as if you’re looking down at them from an airplane window; others might evoke something that you’re very close to which is out of focus, and maybe this is interlaced with forms that feel very distant, and crisper. The objective is to knit wildly varying perspectives into a unified space. Because of the way light reacts to the metallic paint, the paintings change as your physical relationship to them changes. I like the unstable situation that depends on the light and the viewer both moving around; the painting changes before your eyes. They’re impossible to photograph—there’s no “accurate” image.
CB And that destabilization almost becomes the subject or content of the painting. Do you want uncertainty to be the content?
JH I don’t think the artist can determine the meaning of content. What I am trying to do is alter baseline conditions of viewing to anticipate a new kind of viewing, to establish a site for “content” or experience. In a way, the paintings resist meaning.
CB I wouldn’t want to pin it down that much, either. The more I look at your paintings, it seems like space and light are your subjects.
JH Yeah, well if you’re painting anything, you’re painting air to some extent. It’s not so much that I’m driving at uncertainty as content as much as I want to captivate and entertain a viewer. I think a painter’s first job is to get someone to look at a painting. Perhaps it’s about motion and light. Having a heightened sense of the painting changing in front of your eyes gives it an almost cinematic quality—light moves across the surface and makes new images before your eyes.
CB In a way, that’s what painting has always done. A painting shifts and changes as one moves backward and forward; it has from Velásquez to Pollock. If destabilization isn’t your content, it’s at least something that’s always present.
JH Yes, it is always present; that’s what makes painting so fascinating, that it’s fixed yet in motion. I read you say that somewhere. With the silver paintings, the same part will one minute be bright, as if in light, the next dark, as if in shadow. This kind of image behavior is proper to cinema. Any painting looks different on separate viewings, and it forms a kind of composite in your mind: “Today the painting did this, yesterday it did that.” Paintings do behave this way, or rather people do, so I attempted to heighten this sense of mutability.
CB It’s more like a living thing.
JH Or something that gives the illusion of being alive. This comes with its own risks: a painting can look really bad sometimes, which I’m willing to accept for the possibility that it’s going to look good at other times. Under normal conditions of viewing, some things are going to excite you and then maybe later the same thing won’t. It’s a very human thing to see a person today and like them; they attract you, but next time maybe they don’t. So you could say that consciousness is built into the actual viewing situation as an aspect of its subject matter.
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