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Mess in Time

David Humphrey, <em>Strolling</em> 2006 (lost), acrylic on canvas, 72” x 60”
David Humphrey, Strolling 2006 (lost), acrylic on canvas, 72” x 60”

November 8, 2016 

In an round-table discussion of Phillip Guston’s 60s paintings I wrote “I love the determined contingency of all of them, as though each decision was a response to the question ‘what if?’” And then later, “Guston articulates and celebrates incipience, the potential for a thing to come into being.” As a consequence of those remarks, Joan Waltemath asked me to elaborate on what I meant by contingency.

I write this first sentence the morning after the angry oligarch-clown captured our U.S. presidency. The contingency of elections folds into history to produce a vertiginous and imprisoning nausea. Contingency is infinitely scalable and this one is sized to hurt and diminish. The “what if” that can be played out on the surface of a canvas looks like a confession of weakness in the face of hard power.

Contingency, for artists, is highlighted by our feeble efforts to overcome it—by the making of coherent forms, solid structures, and the control of materials. Substance resists and has a signifying life of its own while images unleash associations in many directions. We make beautiful messes with materials chosen and sometimes understood but never entirely mastered. Failure dramatizes both the possibilities we imagined and the energetic desire to make them happen. Nietzsche writes about the semi-arbitrary and self-defining power of the artist to say, “thus I willed It.” We go forward powered by an illusion of executive command that helps us produce objects that patiently wait for their unanticipatable moment with contingency.    

Duchamp’s tradition of the readymade provides options for artists to become sophisticated consumers; “thus I choose it.” Artists and shoppers, like voters, make decisions with a momentary sense of agency that will have consequences impossible for them to anticipate. Art’s weakness has been used as a form of strategic vulnerability (the wolf in sheep’s clothing), as a twisted criticality (the commodity that is not one), and as a way to cope with or resist a world ordered in disagreeable ways. The artwork’s weakness echoes our personal relation to geo-political and environmental forces we are persistently urged by oligarch clowns to ignore.

But contingency doesn’t mean random; events occur according to affordances in the state of affairs. The space of possibility is bounded by the impossible on one side and tyrannical necessity on the other. Coherence, or organized form, would seem to limit the play of contingency if you want to give it life within a static artwork like a painting. Deciding to make a mark here and not there instantly and finally transforms the potential into the actual. I think of Paul Cézanne as an artist who builds his observation-based images by means of aggregated approximations. His information unit, the mark, is placed one by one in relation to others according to a sequence of disciplined guesses about the location of this branch overlapping another or the yellow highlight on a piece of foliage hovering beside a similarly shaped yellow patch of distant ground. The parts of a Cézanne painting, especially in his landscapes, make a coherent order according to how you look at them. Branches and leaves seem to hang together in a certain constellation, but when you return to the same spot after looking at other parts of the picture a different gestalt displaces the first one. The experience of looking at his work is one of mentally making and remaking an order that is never stable. His rendering of the world embodies a vibrating contingency of perceived sense.

But is deep contingency a threat to meaning and what we consider significant? If any decision can be reconsidered in a different context then why does this or that one matter? Rules look absurd and confidence starts to erode. Richard Rorty believes that there is positive value to acknowledging the historic contingency of our values. He thinks convictions and language itself are best seen as contingent. He believes that it is important to continuously re-describe the context of our assumptions and the interests they might serve. Perspectives are tools, and for Rorty, questioning their purpose moves us in the direction of greater freedom.

How does this play out in a painting studio? I try to create conditions that stimulate the emergence of new metaphors (hopefully serving Rorty’s liberal cosmopolitan ideal) by making a habitat where source images, works on paper, and paintings interact with each other productively and unexpectedly. I find ways (through drawing, projections, software tools, and occasional flights of imagination) for different images to breed or hybridize within the studio’s messy turbulence. Thousands of branching decisions about shape, color, position or content tangle into and around each artwork. I will test possibilities by jamming this image into another or making a new work isolating the color or some other feature of a painting in progress. The challenge is to stay one step ahead of grooved habits. Arresting the development of a work sooner than planned or going too far can be useful. Breaking and repairing, erasing and vandalizing, remembering and anticipating are operations that can be folded into the process. I like the idea that individual works hang together in my studio array like Cézanne’s marks describing a landscape. Each work counts as an approximation that aggregates with the others into a provisional picture of layered consciousness.

A painting in the studio can easily be altered for any reason by the artist. But it is instantly transformed upon arrival at the exhibition space into something fixed, more-or-less forever with a signature. Artworks inhabit a strange stasis irradiated by passing events. The finished work promises to stay still while we and the world change around it. It also promises to make new kinds of sense at each historic turn. So perhaps the movement from studio to exhibition is not so much a transformation as a shift of context and time-frame.

I had an exhibition in London at the Keith Talent gallery in 2007. The dealers were inspired risk-takers but also, it turns out, law-breakers. My work from the exhibition fell into a black hole after they were convicted of art-related crimes. Last year my New York dealer got an email from a person who rescued a couple of the least damaged paintings from a derelict warehouse slated for renovation. He loved them and took them home for restoration, exercising his version of a finders-keepers rule. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to handle the situation. The rest of my show, presumably, found its way to a dumpster. Contingency bore down to produce new futures for these paintings, probably like the future of most artworks over the vastness of time.

Mess is contingency’s icon and narcissism’s nightmare as it threatens the illusion of control. Making art is a way of making sense, but it is also a way to untie the bonds of sense. It’s a way to vivify possibilities and disorient the customary. Redescriptions and metaphors are provisionally formed and reformed in the flux of the studio before proceeding into the slowed-down turbulence of a horizonless future.


David Humphrey

DAVID HUMPHREY is a New York artist who is represented by the Fredericks & Freiser Gallery, NY. An anthology of his art writing, Blind Handshake, was published by Periscope Publishing in 2009


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FEB 2018

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