Phrogz That Collaborate: Jennifer Coates and David Humphrey in Nebraska
Jennifer Coates and David Humphrey: Phrogz at Fiendish Plots
April 14 to May 19, 2017
2130 Magnum Circle
Nestled amidst repair shops within an industrial stretch of “O” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska near the overpass of Highway 77 (the Homestead Highway), is an establishment that fits the very definition of Wallace Shawn’s line, in My Dinner with Andre (1981; dir. Louis Malle),“ I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out!” The cigar store in this case is a gallery, Fiendish Plots. Since 2013, this space run by Charley Friedman and Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez is generating a local cultural renaissance. . Following a strong exhibition of paintings by New York-based Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Fiendish Plots now presents Phrogz, a show of collaborative works by Jennifer Coates and David Humphrey. The show takes its title from a band in which the two, who are married, perform an eccentric mix of folk, jazz, and original compositions.
Greeting the visitor are singular paintings by each exhibitor, introducing them as independent artists. Side walls of the gallery hold collaborative works: on one side, a pair of similarly modest-sized rectangular canvasses, and facing them, 42 works on paper of varying sizes installed salon-style. David has created the stack of quirky hand-drawn and photocopied price sheets, provided near the front door, which map out the numbered, but untitled, works on display in the exhibit. He has even included electrical outlets to help visitors maintain their orientation.
Although these two artists present very different imagery in their individual pieces, they share a cartoonish graphic approach and a highly attuned painterly touch, which make them ideally suited to create a totally cohesive collaborative work of art.
The image of a giant pink-skinned nude fertility goddess standing in a landscape dominates Humphrey’s Nature Girl. The main focus of the figure is her upper torso and head (her legs are cut off at the knees). Numerous breasts dotted with cadmium red nipples fan across and balloon out all around her body. They morph together in sections and frame her head like an awkward crown. Her sexual orifices are also plentiful. Seemingly, the figure’s only fully functioning appendage is her left arm, which bends upward, presenting an unenthusiastic power fist. Punching out awkwardly from the right side of the woman is what I find to be the most mysterious and disturbing aspect of this figure, an outgrowth that is a combination of a fist and an ass. This bulbous pink form contains black oddly shaped cavities sitting within its fleshy form like watermelon seeds. Cadmium red marks are skillfully scored in and around these orifices, which remind me of the type of hieroglyphic lines that one might find in a comic bubble used to describe a pissed-off character. This body part seems to carry the bulk of the woman’s emotional weight, since the expression on her generically attractive face—with its red lipstick and medium-length, brown hair—appears to be without thought. Behind this mysterious goddess are the standard trappings of a landscape: a brown tree with green foliage and red blossoms. Some lighter-toned green triangular trees sit deeper in the picture plane, and some grey, stone-colored mountains cut across the horizon. Quick, bold strokes of two bright-toned blues define a sky.
Painterly, swooping, brushed-in greens activate the bottom of the canvas, and blocked-in areas of violet and grey hug the right and top edge of the picture plane, nicely framing the aforementioned bright blues of the sky.
Besides my strange intrigue with the woman’s “orafist,” I was equally fascinated by a grey-bricked short end of an odd, long, low wall, painted in extreme two-point perspective. Sitting in the middle ground of the landscape, this barrier seems to be blocking a brown dirt mound. I haven’t a clue what it’s doing in the painting, but without its odd grounding and mysterious presence, the entire landscape in the painting would become fragmented and lost.
Coates’s painting, Snickers Bar, presents a bold cross-section of the iconic candy. The core composition of this bar’s interior, with a chocolatey brown skin framing its interior ingredients, fits tightly within a neutral photo-grey background. Painted over a neon-orange ground, Coates allows the glowing color to penetrate the caramel and peanut upper strata. A warm orangey-brown and bright-toned violet hold warmer-hued yellows that define peanut-shaped forms and crunchy bits. The painting’s lower section of nougat is more muted. It reads like an area that was once flooded by thinner and quieter passages of purples and greens. The impasto brush marks create a stronger physical presence in the middle of this murkier section. In contrast with the warmth of the caramel and peanut layer, the defining marks of nougat have dried into raised scars. The only things that could be perceived as still “wet” in the lower part of the cross-sectioned form are some runny oily lines that have trailed off the lower left corner and bottom of this slice of candy, linear stains that add nice stickiness. The candy bar structure conveys what is clearly the artist’s deeper interest and historical reference: abstract form and non-objective painting. To quote the catalogue from her show, All U Can Eat, which took place at Freight + Volume in New York in 2016, she advised, “Please consider communing with your ancestors the next time you enter the Snickers.”
The dream-like scenarios of Jennifer Coates and David Humphrey open up endless possible narratives and illuminate an enormous depth of pictorial invention. The reason I have concentrated on the descriptions of their individual efforts is because their collaborative works present such an array of variations in surface invention, graphic intelligence, and figurative ingenuity, painterly experimentation. In his book, Blind Handshake: Art Writing + Art, 1990 – 2008, David has quoted his 1998 essay, Hi My Name is Artwork, that I think perfectly encapsulates the nature of these collaborative paintings.
Works we love often seem to aid insights that come from us, not necessarily about ourselves, but our best self. These special works seem to have significance above the others by virtue of their capacity to bring us a heightened sense of our singularity on the shared plane of culture. Some works almost seem to recognize themselves as we change over the years; they grow with us and share our power to resist to assimilate.
Yes, you’ll find many works in this show, but this is the kind of exhibition where each image unveils new surprises and presents new questions with every viewing. I will touch on just two of the collaborative works to illustrate the artists’ combined invention. Consider their image of two clothespin-shaped, pinkish-colored nudes with scrubby beards wearing tube socks in a forest of painterly brown and violet grey-toned foliage-free trees. Their shadowed faces look like grey Halloween masks turned up onto the top of one’s head. They stare in open-mouthed amazement at something above them and out a view. A series of thin, strategically-placed cadmium red lines of varied curves seem to give a surprising volume to these otherwise flat individuals donning only socks. A group of somewhat forlorn-faced white sheep have come out of the acidic yellow and green sunny background, and into the slightly cooler aqua green ground cover of this same forest. Standing to the right of these stunned nudes, they stare out at the viewer and provide a nice pause that both stokes the humor and adds an opening read to this absurd painting.
In a somewhat lager work on paper, a highly abstracted warm blueish violet-toned figurative form seems to be bathing in the darkness of a clearly defined deep blue, violet, and green night sky filled with connect-the-dot constellations. Sitting on a bright blue and white gingham-patterned tablecloth, a strange illuminating light reveals this figure’s pink butt cheeks. After viewing this painting, I kept thinking of the prison cell scene in the film noir The Killers (1946; dir. Robert Siodmak). Staring out through from a little cell window, one character says to the other, “You see that bright star in the center. . . brightest star in all the heavens. Only it’s so far away, it don’t seem like it.”?
Matthew Sontheimer is Associate Professor of Painting and Drawing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His work is represented by the Talley Dunn Gallery, in Dallas, Texas, and the Devin Borden Gallery, in Houston Texas, and can be found in the permanent collections of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York.