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    American Gesture
by Robert Mahoney
Three Women
Portrait of God (After Richard Bernstein)
Jacko (After Jeff Koons)
Richard Phillips, Oct. 23-Nov. 29, 1998, at Friedrich Petzel, 26 Wooster Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.

I have often imagined the existence of some mysterious Wizard of Art behind the curtain of the New York art world. At some point, in every emerging career, this Wizard gives a young artist a talking to. He says, "Let go of your individuality, your eccentricities and your interests. Paintings, in order to make it in New York, have to be big, flat, simple and empty.

"Remember, a work of art can only be about one idea at a time. If you find a second idea in a work of art, take it out. Emptiness is most important. You have to work and work to empty all meaning out of your art and when you arrive at empty that's when everyone will love the work and you are on your way.

"And, by the way, don't imagine that being empty is easy. We humans with our egos are so attached to being smarter than the next guy, that it is hard to surrender to the emptiness of life. Good luck -- and have a nice day."

I suspect the existence of this wizard again, in viewing Richard Phillips' first show at Petzel Gallery. Why? In the early '90s, Phillips was a neo-conceptualist who showed at places like Liz Koury, then he disappeared. In the mid '90s he reemerged as an apparently sincere realist and for that reason Edward Thorp gallery supported him. Then he began to do large-scale close-up portraits of fashion babes with mud-pack faces and he was on his way to the '97 Whitney Biennial.

For me even his Whitney Biennial fashion model portraits were too specific, too realistic, too neo-Photo Realist. I understand what people were yearning for, in praising this painting, but I also understood that there was still too much content in his work.

In this show Phillips has made the step he needed to make in order to enter the stratosphere of New York art. His work now is completely empty. And I mean this as the highest compliment.

Phillips apparently still feels some attraction to the idea of makeup and fashion. Riot (1998) shows four Valley of the Dolls-type women with luridly pink and green eye makeup, their hair done in graphic black-and-white curlicues that reek of Beatles' Revolver '60s chic. Easy looking.

Three Women (1998) features a trio of creamy Afroqueens set against a backdrop of velvet-like black paint, a reminder of the Blaxploitation days when sexy "sistahs" were as good as chocolate. Both of these paintings, installed in the back room of the gallery, are works of graphic design that have been flattened, simplified, and rendered deadpan and empty on canvas, thus ironically creating an icon to the lovely idiocy of taste and style.

The main event is in the front gallery. Two large paintings stand out. Portrait of God (After Richard Bernstein) (1998) lifts an illustration of Rob Lowe from the cover of Interview magazine and gives him size, opacity, glow (his blue eyes look Christ-like) and mortality. As everyone must know, the bad-boy Brat Pack actor's career crashed with the scandal of the Atlanta sex videotape. To call him "God" cleanses him of his sins and mockingly reinvests his eyes with the divine wink of the ever-reviving trash icon.

As a painting lifted from illustration (itself based on a photo), Phillips practices "repainting" (like rephotography). This is not an image of God, but a Shroud of Turin, a possible fake, with no basis in reality, nonetheless appealing to our need to look into nirvana. It's all about (repeat after me) re-presentation.

In Jacko (After Jeff Koons) (1998), Phillips steps even further back, creating an icon still emptier than Koons' 1980s gilt-edged porcelain receptacle of the essence of Michael Jackson's eternal boyhood. The work is a smoothly done portrait of Jackson, copied from Koons' famous sculpture. Once again, Phillips is attracted by a fallen star. Jackson is now in a permanent limbo, guilty in his trial by press, embarrassed by marriage and rendered ridiculous by his denials and divorce. We've all watched Jackson degenerate through defensiveness and fatherhood from a moonwalking Fred Astaire (he was easily the second greatest popular dancer of the 20th century) into a personage with the aura of a clichéd Latin American dictator.

For Phillips to try to reclaim Koons' sweetest elegy on pure eternal boyhood is laughable, tragic and too truly American. Phillips has created the ultimate empty gesture -- a terrific achievement.

ROBERT MAHONEY is a New York art critic.