Friday, October 8, 2010

ArtWord: John Humphries

Tile or Scales Linked Together

Originally from Texas pausing briefly on the Ozark Plateau and along the Puget Sound John Humphries feels the Miami Valley is a location for locking in roots. Having completed degrees in Architecture, and Fine Arts in Design and a foray as a saucier and metalsmith, John Humphries is a visual artist, gardener, and designer focusing on translating one media form to another. The creative work takes the form of photo/watercolor constructions, carved wooden slabs, automatic poems, and multi-layered sounds.

Humphries is exhibiting works as part of "A Vanguard Six" currently on view at the Phyllis Weston gallery

1. Your work is self-referencing. Can you tell me how working with various media and subjects from painting and photography to architecture, wood to metal, music to writing, color to sound helps satisfy your exploration of identity? Perhaps more important, how does your work force your viewer to engage in these questions of identity?
Passion and identity through making, in my work and teaching, lies primarily in the realm of drawing. Even my acoustical sculptures [yuck, that sounds like a terrible term] are design drawings because they foreground the technical execution and the media. I try to use all of the various permutations of drawing when thinking about space, narrative, pedagogy, color, and detail. Drawing from something [water from a well]. Drawing blood. To draw out [as in extending something beyond its useful life]. Drawn towards [as in gravity or loves or compulsions].

Drawing inspiration.In terms of identity, I have found most of the really interesting things in the world are so mind numbingly complex that analogy is often the most reasonable way to try to understand these things. Especially identity, one needs to come at this sideways. When working, I keep a notion of my identity in my mind at all times waiting for a chance to integrate small bits. A drawing can not be simply an illustration of my thoughts or desires or they become lampoonish or caricatures of a notion. A complex thing like the Self or Ego or Id or Morbeus’s mindless Krell primative can not be summed with a simple image or picture.

The drawing needs to be held in a certain state of indecision for the work to bloom. A bloom allows others to enter the drawing. Shifting between modes of representation holds this moment longer. I think I am trying to find that moment when the work is a bit uncanny--when something just seems to not work. I hope this does not sound too indulgent or flakey. It is a very specific feeling we have all had--a combination of surprise, anticipation, and fear. This is the experience when something as mundane as when we throw a ball of paper into the wastebasket. The instant before making the shot, we kind of know if it will make it or not, but not fully. The instant when fear shifts to accomplishment. You also feel this when you walk at night and know there is nothing to fear but little triggers shift the moment of just walking to running for your life. I think this is what happens to children when they are scared of their room or closet at night.

Identity comes forth when I can hold, or visualize, or fear, or embrace these moments. Multiple media explorations have become a tool to highlight these moments of tension. For the record I use Alexander Calder’s method for stopping a drawing--usually about dinner time, though not always.

2. Seeing your work as a continuous exploration of hybrids and spaces in-between, I wonder if you are familiar with Border Theory as a methodology for exploring Chicano and Latino identities through geographical spaces and middle grounds or borderlands? Do you see your own identity as an adopted child of first generation immigrants as similarly influential in your work? If not, what are the differences?
I am not familiar with the Border Theory of identity. I think it might be some notion about holding a geographical or temporal thing in mind as the transformative event of one’s identity. The moment in space-time when one became an alien. Perhaps my experience is close to this way of thinking. The experience of being adopted into a family which has a very strong history sets up some strange relationships. You do feel as if you simultaneously do not belong and also do dare having another place to belong. There is borrowed history and stories which you have some connection but also really do not care about. Very simplistically perhaps it could be as if you have a friend who loves a certain movie or film because they have a personal connection to the event featured in the document. You care about the person so you accept that this is important to them and you take the time to understand the event and might even enjoy the tale. There will never be the same connection so i find myself being interested in other things. The telling of the story for example.

My history started at my birth--it is as if there was nothing before me. All connections to things prior are like little charges or zaps or moments which make contact intellectually to my personal experiences. I have only one blood-relative. I have no cultural myths of creation or morality or ethics. I am searching for these connections. I believe these connections are the moments which keep us all searching. A vacation snapshot is not usually interesting in itself but it is a tangible connection to now and the past. My drawings want to be the snapshot between one thing and another, allowing you to escape for just a second. This might be why it is fun to dig through the snapshots of strangers; maybe this is the real success of Facebook and the internet.


3. Though necessarily conceptual, your analytique drawings are especially exquisite. While the drawings are full of detail and information about space and our movement within it, this viewer enjoys getting lost in their complexity as much or more than teasing out a narrative. Do you see this tug of war between beauty and concept as a problem with these drawings or with conceptual art in general? Or perhaps you welcome it as part of your (the viewer’s?) passage between definitions of art and utility?
I do not appreciate sloppiness in any work. There is a discipline specific craft required in all fields. Even art, as loose as many people think it is, needs to be well crafted. Painters before the advent of aniline dyes and large color manufacturing houses had to be as much chemist as painter. I avoid certain moves and subjects in the paintings and sounds and drawings because I still need to develop my ability to work in this way. One is typography, or the glow of salt on a dark surface, another is the luminosity of human skin in the sun.

Concept is problematic, in general, in contemporary art. Often the work seems to be over thought. I think the conceptualization of work is the thing that helps me start without a blank page, make certain moves of connection, and make value decisions while working. The success is not when a viewer is held because they “get it”. The execution of my watercolour drawings uses the connections between the technical act of drawing and making to hold the viewer in the drawing. I hope they are not confused when viewing the work--but are able to wonder around the drawing.

The technicalities of drawing allow for the transformation of one media type to another. For example: orthographic drawing has largely horizontal and vertical lines and planes. Axonometric projection has vertical lines as well. This is the moment when one type of drawing can shift into another. Axonometric drawings also have diagonal elements, these can be found in perspectival representations of space. With this understanding a drawing can shift from perspectival representation to a planimetric drawing to a an axonometric drawing.

When working I hunger for these technical transformations. These moments are the snapshots which connect ‘now to a remembered event or imagined thing or just a dumb line. I work with multiple media because I find these connections. When expanding them into three dimensions small sticks and bits of wire are very close to lines drawn on the page. The newest leaps into sound and text are because I have found these connections in other media. Speech has certain rhythmic and cadence properties which allow for a connection between any sound and text. Sound can be graphed to form an image. Multi-media is just the next inevitable step.

Sometimes you have to stop drawing and listen.

Pelops Speak Non-sense for Himself

4. You draw your work with hybrid identities from the Greek transformational story of Pelops. Admittedly, I’m not too familiar with this rather gruesome tale. It seems as though the machination of this story is what attracts you. Instead of historical depictions of creatures made of elements from nature (Egyptian and Aztec gods, gargoyles, etc), employing an image of a machine/human hybrid leads to further exploration of the culture of mechanics. Are the in-between spaces you expose then manufactured rather than natural? Do you see yourself moving too far away from what may be fundamental issues about the arts and art making? How threatening is this crossing of media lines to your artwork?
As I have said I draw. Maybe it is closer to drafting or a technical manufacturing. The story of Pelops is fascinating and complex, and full of imagery, and tragedy. It seems very modern in a sense. A young person is transformed and becomes more beautiful by getting a new gadget. Maybe his new arm of ivory and bronze manufactured by Haphestus is the equivalent of a new iPhone and ubiquitous white ear buds making a new and beautiful person. Pelops is my check and balance, a kind plastic educator.

5. Many artists today are welcoming the opportunities to work with non-traditional tools for making art. I often wonder if computer technologies hurt art either by welcoming them into the galleries and museums or into the artist studio. As comfortable as I may be with these technologies personally, as an art historian/critic, I find art made or viewed with these tools easy to dismiss. You are currently using newer computer technologies to explore sound and color. Is focusing on these basic art forms (sound, color, image, form, writing) the way to maintain your own identity as an artist?
I agree. My struggle with using these newer technologies [though they are not really new] is that I am uncertain where the ART is located in the things generated. I do not think these technologies hurt our discussion of our culture through the act of making. I think the problem is the newness of these media and most folk do not know how to enter the work and are seduced by the cleverness. The concern with newer media is that the work seems to err on the side of didactic. Is the craft in the algorithm?

There is a hesitation on my part to exhibit or display the newer work because often the discussion becomes about the how and not the what. The how is easy--just like drawing. A pencil works by scratching a mineral onto matted plant fibers. In what way did the scratchings affect/effect the viewer?

My erratic sounds and non-sense poems derived from my drawings are not very new--if anything they are retro-dada. The only thing I gain from the computer is the ability to generate many more sounds and strings of words than I could without the device. I could map or chart my drawing on paper and give this document to a cellist.

The danger I have found is also in this speed of making things. I use this in my teaching of new design students at Miami University. Making many things quickly give the impression that making things is easy and often automatic. A slowing down of the process allows for contemplation of the work at many scale and stages. The computer allows for more time to contemplate made objects--its greatest strength is in the mash-up. We are not accustomed or trained to deeply consider formed object.

I remember a discussion with my mentor, Richard Ferrier FAIA, when we spoke about new technologies and how they need some time to develop a language and discourse of their own. Acrylic paint was initially considered only in terms of its similarity to water media and oil paint. The same with photography, it was considered a documentarian and utilitarian media. In my field of teaching, design, interior design is still relatively in its infancy and struggling to develop an identity separate from other design disciplines.

My identity is tied up in my drawings--I think though my feeling of comfort with alienness allows me to be comfortable with discomfort and thereby find these connections. The discussion I would hope to engender is one about the sameness of things and to find the places we connect.