Jacqueline Humphries: Layers – a painterly narrative

I do feel as if Jacqueline Humphries is becoming one of my influential artists, from whom I could learn at a deeper level how to approach art and painting. Jutta Koether is another artist whose approach I find fascinating, not necessarily the final visual outcome, more the approach and attitude towards painting.

After my visit to Modern Art Gallery, Vyner Street, East End London (see blog post Oct 2018) with her recent large scale paintings on display, I was hooked by her works. Humphries expressed her approach as creating a ‘pictorial distortion and disruption’ (Brown, 2009) and ‘painting as an event’ in the sense of ‘performing painting as opposed to crafting it per se’. She doesn’t work with preliminary drawings, everything is happening in the act of painting. She considers intentionality as a bifold area, having an idea to follow through painting in a more openendedness, and as becoming a predictable barrier.

For Humphries, the artist places herself at the center of a ‘role-playing’ and the viewer becoming a character, both ‘inhabiting and observing the space’ (Ryan, 2018). Painting as a space for anyone. In the interview with fellow painter artist Cecily Brown (2009) both discussed how to seek attention through painting, as ‘viewers want to feel that they’re part of the space of the painting’ (C Brown).

With respect to Humphries’ abstract painting Brown sees ‘a generosity to the space, an almost baroque feeling.’  What brings me back to my recent explorations of Baroque intensities.

“I never think of painting as a cathartic thing, but I definitely think it’s a way of processing things.- Cecily Brown

Humphries explored the expanded spectrum of visibility, not into the direction of invisible spaces, but in the direction of pushing the wavelength boundaries of what is visible and perceptible to the naked eye: use of light sensitive media and viewing under UV lights (‘Black Light Paintings’). For her, it is often about activation. Either as UV activation or just as paintings activating the surrounding environment. The latter, reminding me of how artists approached Minimal Art, as an object in space activating that space, with some notions to Gestalt psychology. 

  • ‘Silver Paintings’: Paintings with shimmering metallic surfaces nearly impossible to capture in photographs. The unstable situation of viewing, when light and position of the viewer depends on each other. Moving around results in changing perception of the painting. Light as ‘painting’ tool is one aspect I often face when taken a photograph from reflective surfaces (e.g. Fig 1 – perhaps something to embrace more as Humphries does?) What reminds me of the White Paintings (1951) of Robert Rauschenberg, where he considered that with a closer view the environment is impacting and modulating what we see in a monochrome, white painting. Micro structures become visible, and eventually leading towards a surface vibration. And through that temporal experience a sense of instability is occurring. Humphries described this her intention of painting, to provide a ‘new kind of viewing, to establish a site for “content” or experience. In a way, the paintings resist meaning.’ (Brown, 2009). 


Fig. 1: light as ‘painting’ tool – performative – painting in watercolor, observing reflections and projected images -> light as source for painting? a ‘painting’ tool?


  • Black Light Paintings : Paintings with light sensitive paint exposed to ultraviolet light. A phenomena one knows from dance floors, or as seen in the show of Mark Dion at Whitechapel. Humphries also has a sense for ‘making things entertaining’ (Brown, 2009). At times I am wondering whether use of specific ‘effect’  tools and paints are not rather a working on clichés, and even with a tendency towards kitsch as by the focus on effect. Interesting to read abut Humphries’s notion that it is the painter’s ‘primary job [is] to get people to stop and look’. (ebid.). 
    I find the ‘spectrum’ approach interesting, as I can related this at an even wider view to my parallel project on MRI, medical imaging, and the embodied sensation of sound. The first at the higher frequency rate beyond UV, the latter at the very low frequency end – in between the visual frequency range of colors. Perhaps, there might be an idea sitting to transform ‘non-visual’ data into visual data by frequency – bookmarked. And it also brings to me the idea discussed on the OCA forum of image distortion through audio processing systems, the latter as  the audio side of visual imagery (Amir, 2016)


  • Stencil paintings‘: Humphries applies a multilayering and superimposing approach in her paintings. She refers to screen based images (digital images) with the abundant presence, compressed in window frames, but with no ‘definitive image’ (Ryan, 2018). Humphries explores ways how to apply compression through painting as a physical objects. She is aware that painting relates to a different set of expectations. I am wondering how the technique of screen-printing could act as a metaphor for that digital world around us. Something, I will put off for later, as I am not familiar with that technique. However, regarding Humphries’ use of laser-cut stencils through which she pushes opaque thick paint through onto the canvas, I can sense a resonance. Partly, because of my recent ‘stencils’ sketches in part 2 (Fig. 2 – though still more as shape, less as layer), partly because of the idea to use stencils as a mean to transfer digital information gesturally onto a painting, becoming one of many layers. There seems to be a relationship with how Julie Mehretu approaches her latest works: layering, mix of digital images, transfer and print techniques and gestural markings. 
Stefan513593 - stencil technique - various sketchbooks pages

Fig. 2: stencil technique – various sketchbooks pages from part 2 and part 3 -> rather shapes than layers, what to learn from Humphries? micro versus macro view 


At times Humphries large scale paintings do remind me of the series paintings of Anne Martin, playing with the difference in perception between distant and near view (macro and micro viewpoints). As if it resides somewhere in between. One could even consider this on a social level as reality in between binary poles. 

I find the Journal of Contemporary Painting a very useful source for inspiration. Often artists are writing about artists, or artists interviewing artists, as Ryan and Brown did interview Humphries. The articles are mostly looking deeper and to include some philosophical aspects of the works, especially with references to Deleuze, Guattari or Derrida. I find the visual journal of Humphries as response on the interview with Ryan in the same journal (Humphries, 2018) fascinating, resonates quite well as I often tend to explore visually and less verbally new ideas or try to make sense of complex ideas. Humphries herself considers that kind of visual response as to be ‘.. meant to reflect and illustrate some of the ideas expressed in the interview’.

Take aways for my own work

  • Performing painting: an event – a making – a material approach as process, embodied experience and creating space
  • Layering: reflection on the abundance of images present in daily life, embedding digital in analog
  • Stencils: transfer of information onto a panting, a gesture of embedding, deferral of meaning, 
  • Spectrum of visibility: color as electro-magnetic waves, going beyond the border (UV -> MRI , IR -> sound), space creation through compression
  • Transposing and transforming information: embedding, layering, digital and analog data, compression; image transformation techniques



  • Fig. 1: Schaffeld, SJ (2019) Watercolor painting
  • Fig. 2: Schaffeld, SJ (2018) Sketchbook explorations and 
  • Featured image: Schaffeld, SJ (2019) digital composite of painted surfaces 


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