Richard Phillips, Apr. 21-May 25, 2007 at Gagosian Gallery, 456 North Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Richard Phillips makes jpeg art -- that is, imagery that looks absolutely fantastic when transferred digitally from gallery to collector, curator, critic or magazine art director. The paintings themselves are enormous, and there is no denying the fact that images of bare-breasted babes and Nazi insignia still pack a wallop in a media-glutted world. In fact, this is partly what the work is about, the backbreaking effort to make "paintings as such" while burdened with a head full of Yale-induced Postmodern critical theory.
"Is it a vital medium or a redundant object of nostalgia connoisseurship?" intones the Gagosian Gallery press release. If the response to that question is based on Phillips’ paintings, the answers would have to be no and yes. The act of laying paint on canvas is not Phillips’ gift. His paintings have none of the fluidity of Tom Wesselmann or the eroticism of David Salle.
These are conceptual paintings, paintings that are commentaries on painting, which means they are all about the choice of subject matter. The exhibition catalogue reproduces Phillips’ original source material, which is drawn from vintage porn, newspapers, fashion shoots and museum collections, along with an essay citing the French philosopher and activist Simone Weil on beauty and evil.
Apart from the pictures of breasts and Hermann Göring’s stationery, the show features a painting of a 12-year-old Ugandan soldier, a painting of a drawing by a 12-year-old of Tom Cruise and a lovingly detailed silver chastity belt around the lean loins of an otherwise naked woman. The essay quotes Weil: "It may be that vice, depravity and crime are nearly always or even perhaps always, in their essence, attempts to eat beauty, to eat what we should only look at."
My friend, the art critic Phyllis Tuchman, has known Phillips for many years and even hired him to paint her apartment before he was a Gagosianiani. She thinks his work is related to that of Chuck Close. Indeed, the drawings, small replicas of the paintings, are covered with grids of pencil lines indicating that they were used as tools to make the large-scale works. Unlike Phillips, however, Close has consistently pursued portraits of his friends and intimates. Phillips’ images seem rather impersonal in comparison.
What has guided the choice of subject matter in Phillips’ paintings? The painting of an owl perched on a human skull was appropriated from a vanitas picture painted in the 16th century to remind viewers that life is brief, material wealth is transitory and only spiritual pursuits are a comfort in the end. He appropriated and enlarged a detail of hell from a painting by Fra Angelico, wherein sinners are being eaten alive by a hairy, horned beast.
These pictures drawn from art history could be seen as a warning to their audience, as could the pictures based in genocide and war. As for the painting of an Asian girl lifting her t-shirt above her bare breasts to reveal the words, "Fuck You," perhaps Phillips is trying to find the roots of his best-known imagery -- glamour shots of 1960s fashion models -- in the connection between desire and violence.
Phillips art enlarges and re-contextualizes our diet of junk-images to send a message about agendas, manipulation and seduction. Something about it makes me want to punish the messenger -- but there is a role for art as irritant. Towering at nine feet tall or more, they guarantee a lot of paint on canvas for a mere $200,000 to $300,000, virtual bargains when stacked against the paintings of his progenitors. Needless to say, the show at Gagosian was sold out.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, published by W.W. Norton.