Vol.4, Number 3, November 2008
[Download $ at Ingenta]
DAVID HUMPHREY IS A NEW YORK ARTIST REPRESENTED BY SIKKEMA JENKINS & CO. HE OCCASIONALLY TURNS IN REVIEWS FOR ART IN AMERICA AND WROTE FOR ART ISSUES FROM 1989 UNTIL ITS DEATH IN 2002. A FORTHCOMING ANTHOLOGY OF HIS ART WRITING, BLIND HANDSHAKE, WILL BE RELEASED BY PERISCOPE PUBLISHING. HIS RADIO SHOW SOUND AND VISION CAN BE HEARD ON WPS1.ORG.
> IKE AND ME
Dwight Eisenhower was the bland grandfatherly presence on the TV of my earliest childhood. The 1960s slowly pushed his memory into a prehistory fossilized somewhere deep in my father’s soldierly sense of responsibility and my aversion to that sense. Art school fortified my aversion even as my application portfolio was filled with stone carvings I had done with Dad’s tools and hobbyist coaching. Dwight Eisenhower, like my father, made art in his spare time.
Even as contemporary art has perennially defined itself against the unconsidered appetites of popular taste, artists, myself included, have mined the vernacular for unexpected insight. Many of my paintings are variations or interpretations of works I find online or in flea markets. Dwight Eisenhower’s paintings presented an irresistible adventure. His work exemplifies what Christopher Bollas would call normotic, the pathologically normal. There are no displays of fancy brushwork, no compositional or iconographic ingenuities, no indication of art historical knowledge or ambition. Ike’s work has just the right mix, for my purposes, of rhetorical modesty, hyper-conventionality, and subtle idiosyncrasy borne through awkwardness and error, but underwritten by our knowledge of his life as the victorious Supreme Allied Commander and postwar President of the United States. Ike was the author of a successful memoir and, consequently, very aware of the earning power of his signature. In 1968 he published a suite of “limited edition” reproductions of his paintings with the name of each owner printed below the image alongside its title, size, medium, and copyright.
Ike copied greeting cards and family snapshots but his preferred idiom was the pastoral landscape, images of simpler times with variations on covered bridges, water mills, and family farms. He painted, at Winston Churchill’s suggestion, to relax. But the unrelaxed spectator happily looks for the buried cargo of ideologies and unintended associations, links between the work’s banal operations and dominating social structures, repressed themes and offbeat formalities.
The Deserted Barn is Ike’s depiction of a derelict building sur-rounded by signs of a life now over. Its compositional (normotic) straightforwardness seems to mask an elaborately encrypted code language. Every pictorial element lines up as if it were part of a glyph sentence. The hatching lines that depict the barn’s deteriorating roof tiles march horizontally with casual cuniformic regularity until an uncanny hole appears in the shape of a Greek cruciform. Doors and windows, trees and fences all seem to be arrayed in hieroglyphic code sentences. The barn’s dark interior suggests a longing to speak a language it has failed to learn, while, outside, the abandoned red wagon and water pump, with lowered handles, echo the aging Ike’s self-reflective theme of a now-passed usefulness.
I begin my treatments of Ike’s compositions by doing a loose copy, which often becomes the location for characters inserted from my image repertoire. I make one-way collaborations in which the long transcription of Ike’s image builds an emotionally inflected connection between him and me. The effort draws me to marvel at the labored specificity of his choices: this cone-shaped tree here, that oddly rendered rock placed so deliberately there. My attentions constitute a form of contact, intimacy within a context of extreme detachment. I’m spending at least as much time making these images as he did. My feelings about his spaces inflect the progress of my work. Ike’s semiskilled efforts promise accessibility to the powerful man through the back door of his conformist solitary passion. Politics and the military are team sports; painting is for tyrants.
Within mainstream art discourse, especially in 1968, Ike’s work was considered ludicrous, reactionary, and sentimental. Today his work can more easily be seen as a charming relic whose rhetorical simplicity no longer threatens. Since Dad’s death I have come to cherish his carvings, while, in some parallel softening, contemporary art is less inclined to insist upon its radicality. Do we automatically assume, given our knowledge of Eisenhower’s politics and country club patrons, that his paintings are consistent and coherent reinforcers of the status quo? His escapist intentions have become happily complicated for us partly because of his art historical blindness and also because we have come to enjoy, perhaps even to be moved by, dated clichés and earnest mistakes.
Eisenhower was instrumental in developing the American highway system and an early form of the internet, but his paintings are mute on those subjects. My paintings treat Eisenhower’s blankness as though it were pathological. I, perhaps also pathologically, introduce sexual overtones and semiotic horseplay to his material, playing fast and loose with the historical record. Like an amateur, I fuck things up in my own way. Perhaps becoming President could help me relax.