Brad Phillips is an artist that was based in Toronto for many years. He has recently opened a show of paintings, drawings and photographs at Groeflin Maag in Zurich. My interaction with Brad began when he arrived on the west coast. Vancouver artist Michael Morris was kind enough to let me stay in his apartment at "the Edge" when Brad dropped by with some friends. Brad was introduced to me by Alex Morrison, Eli Langer and a few others during an annual group of openings in Vancouver known as "SWARM". My friends led me to Brad's house which was a run down heritage house just on the outskirts of Chinatown. At that time Brad was working on a portrait of Winona Ryder for a group show at Andrew Kreps in New York. Brad Phillips has been an enigmatic figure on the westcoast ever since his arrival. What follows is an email conversation between us over the course of one week during Christmas of December 2008.
Noah Becker: A show of your work has opened at Groeflin Maag gallery in Zurich. Did you attend the opening?
Brad Phillips: Yeah, I went there in mid-November. Got sick and spent most of my time in the Easy Hotel. Watched looped Euro CNN with endless tourism ads for surprisingly, Montenegro.
NB: The Groeflin Maag show was your European debut?
BF: No this was my third show with them, although I did a solo show with them at LISTE in 2007. The gallery had been in Basel, but this was my first show in Zurich.
NB: How did you meet this European gallery?
BF: A friend of mine from NY starting showing there when they first opened and told me about it - I had always naively associated Switzerland with the apex of success. So it was appealing to me. I really liked their nascent program. I sent them a package and they were into the work. I know that's supposed to not be done, but for students everywhere, it's good to tell them it can be done.
NB: Yes, a friend of mine has been exhibiting in Zurich over the past few years. They can spend huge sums of money on art in Switzerland, I'm very impressed by the Swiss collectors, they are really with it. A relatively unknown artist can make a lot of money selling real art in that scene. They really do care about art in Switzerland. So maybe it's the apex of caring (Laughs). In terms of students, they are generally taken advantage of on all levels of the international art scene. The smart ones deal with the master/slave, intern/dealer thing in a creative manner, discovering ways of being successful or overcoming the mentor/ servant, teacher/student or wanna be “art star” aesthetics. Success is found in surprising ways, so I agree with you that misinformation goes both ways. Yes, it can be done but sometimes "wrong" is in fact the new "right". What were your student days like? Who did you study with, is that where your sense of humor comes from?
BF: It's true that the Swiss treat art with more reverence than I'm accustomed to. But that might just be a European thing, or a situation that exists outside of Canada. I've certainly had much more success outside of the country I was born in. My sense of humor probably comes from the refugee camp I grew up in. If you can't laugh there, you just can't laugh. That's not true really...there are ways of being a student, and an artist, that avoid the power struggle, but it's very difficult. I need dealers, and they need me, but the need is more my own. There are so many fucking artists now, but very few good galleries. School - school was a waste of time for me. I went to sort of shitty art schools in Toronto at the apex of their shittiness. So I used it as studio space, as a way to get hash connections etc. My best experience in art school came from Dai Skuse, who is half of Fastwurms. Other than that, there were really no teachers who were contemporary artists and what I needed to learn and had to teach myself was how to navigate a career and life as an artist, not ten different ways to use Pthalo green.
NB: Your work seems to be a collection of images based on your strong sense of what appeals to you. I'm interested in the way you find source material for pictures. It also appears that photography is an interest of yours as in the piece called "Young Marriage". Then we have images such as Real Life Richard Prince , a text based oil painting in the Trompe-l' oeil style. There is an artist in Brooklyn named William Powhida who is with Schroeder Romero gallery working in a similar text based manner. The use of text in your work is more minimal, almost casually done. This being said, there is continuity to your seemingly random choices, so please explain the basis for this playful diversity so we can understand its directions.
BF: Well that "Young Marriage" piece was a three part photography show I did in Basel. I could never show photographs in Vancouver, for obvious reasons. But in terms of source material, they all come from my own photographs. Then there is some decision making regarding what would work as a painting and what as a photo. I usually pick the most difficult photos to paint in a tribute to masochism. But they are essentially diaristic. I was really inspired by the most maligned artist around, when I finally saw a copy of Nobuyoshi Araki's book "Sentimental Journey" it opened up doors for me in terms of content. Also Fairfield Porter. I'm a big fan of confessionalist poetry, so where, like the "Real Life Richard Prince" piece was totally set up, most of my paintings are based on either accidental or constructed images of my wife Erin, still lives from around the house, paintings of the covers of books I'm reading, and the landscape in the four blocks surrounding my home and on the occasional trip we make. I can't draw, so I need photography as the template to make these paintings seem realistic. Otherwise if I painted from life, my work would be the same, but I would appear to be a drunk. So while I guess there is a lot of diversity in the work, to me, because it's my own, I see all the connections. Hopefully the viewer makes different connections, can find a personal connection to the work themselves. That's the best reaction I can hope for.
NB: Your work is intimate with your process a craft based one centered around oil painting as a means to an end. A Vancouver conceptualist was talking about his lack of any drawing ability in one of those Phaidon books. They say painting is a difficult area to work with in Vancouver. There was a commercial scene for it in the late 80's around the galleries near the Granville St. bridge. Painters would be living in Europe then back to Vancouver then New York. Painting was so important to Vancouver in the 80's, but painting as a strategy seems more interesting now, with the development of everything conceptually. It's what draws me to your work, the need to paint without really painting. Where do you think Vancouver is at this juncture? There are so many famous artists from there or working there.
BF: I have been accused of intimate art-making a lot. I like that. Actually I found out from the women who run the gallery in Zurich that 90% of the people who see my work think that I'm a woman. I don’t know what this means, but I guess I linked it with intimacy, so maybe I do. Vancouver was big in the eighties, but was it more than just Attila Richard Lukacs and Peter Schuyff? Most of what was popular painting in the eighties, looking at the work in retrospect, those artists must have had phenomenally charismatic personalities. I like what you say about making a painting almost without the need to do it, in that it could be a photograph instead. Because I do enjoy uselessness, and engaging with that, and working hard for weeks to make a painting that has no real need to exist. It's true there are so many famous artists from Vancouver right now, but again, name the ones you like? Jeff Wall almost doesn't count anymore, He's from everywhere. The problem with Vancouver, and maybe that's where I see it being at, is that there are a shitload of talented artists, people who would blow the well known artists out of the water, who just don't have the confidence, or the sociopathic social traits, or frankly the desire for success that would also make them art world household names. I have a lot of friends here who I think make Stan Douglas look like Andrew Dice Clay, but they are so buried by the legacy of photo conceptualism I fear they won't be able to get out from under it. I think a lot of people have moved away from that, so there is an emphasis on the handmade, on doodling, digital media, painting - I think to work in and with the accepted canon of photo conceptualism is a very retrogressive stance now. And anyway, so much of it is garbage.
NB: Jeff Wall is an international hero in the art world. My thoughts were reflecting upon the way in which Vancouver is presented to the art world in terms of its names. It seems like every article about Vancouver artists lists Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Stan Douglas etc. just the towering figures of westcoast art. I'm all for Vancouver being as great as any other place in terms of its art. It is interesting when you go to Europe or anywhere else because it's very prestigious to be a Vancouver artist now. It's more prestigious then we can imagine, with many followers of what's happening here during the season. As Ol' Dirty Bastard said "There are eyes watching us that we can't even see." Which has now allowed me to change the subject so that we can discuss Hip Hop. Specifically Olaf Breuning's taste for Lil’ Wayne's music. The reason I speak of Olaf Breuning is because he was mentioning Lil' Wayne as music he is into. Recently Whitehot Magazine interviewed Olaf and this was mentioned in detail. You had mentioned your fondness for Olaf's work but I'm not sure if hip hop is on your playlist or not?. Olaf was all over Miami this year and threw a great party at the Sagamore Hotel. There is a connection there between you and Olaf, plus I think Olaf would like you very much. Your attachment to your block around your house is very interesting to me. Maybe you will re-build the block around your house in a museum in Europe some day? How do see your work developing in terms of the future or do you take things second by second?
BF: Vancouver has in the sense that it's not a populist scene here, so it's sort of like Leipzig or something, there is a brand. Although Rodney Graham and Jeff Wall couldn't be more different in my mind. I’ve never noticed the prestige associated with being from Vancouver when I show other places, although people ask me about Jeff Wall! That ODB lyric is great, and scarily true, and yes I know Olaf actually, he came to my first show in Basel years ago and we hit it off. His work is crazy and he's so handsome and bonkers. I imagine he would throw a good party. I listen to tons of hip hop in the studio, but I'm sort of not good at keeping up with new stuff. So I still just listen to Biggie Smalls, Eric B and Rakim, Ghostface Killa, and I obsessively listen to RZA's first Bobby Digital record, which must be ten years old now. I listen to it all the time.It’s like my White Album - so underrated. Other than hip hop I still listen to a shitload of old Florida death metal, Obituary, Carcass, Cannibal Corpse - a lot of Norwegian black metal, Burzum, Carpathian Forest. I really like unrelenting music. Neurosis. Suicide. Nation of Ulysses. Philip Glass. I never really think about the future as a general rule, it would paralyze me, and I don’t like to over think my work, so yeah, I take it as it comes. Never go anywhere without a camera, just wait, be observant, look a lot. I never run out of ideas. Once you develop an idiosyncratic way of looking, everything becomes subject matter.
NB: You have that perspective on things so bravo for that dose of uncut narcotic. I'm a huge fan of artists working in that way. My own work has strayed from the lens and its use in the making of pictures. The David Hockney book is interesting but mostly because of its great reproductions of old paintings. You are working in that Gerhard Richter, Warhol, Vermeer area of the autobiographical as related to photography's use in painting. You are a collector of images in this manner. But my interest in your work is due to your creeping, almost creepy sense of your surroundings.
BF: That Hockney book is interesting and it does have the best reproductions. I think he presented proof that was so incontrovertible, that I can't see it any other way. I find it’s always annoying purists that have a problem with not gridding out a painting, with using a projector. Painting is held to a higher standard of so called virtuosity I think. In the end, it's a tool, and a means to making the painting faster. I don’t really see personally how what Chuck Close does gives his work more integrity than someone who uses an optical device. Anyway my experience with dealers and collectors etc. is that it's a “don't ask don't tell” thing about how the paintings are made. I'm not a big Richter fan, but I like Fairfield Porter and Vuillard and Matisse for using their own biographies as fuel. My work has always been creepy or Lynchian or something. It's not something I set out to do. I think I have a slightly creepy view of the world, and I also grew up in a suburban type nightmare next to a nuclear power plant. That can change your views of the landscape.
NB: Thanks for talking to us Brad, we look forward to your future shows at Groeflin Maag and elsewhere.