By LYNN MALISZEWSKI, JUN. 2014
Richard Phillips has a lot going on. The opening of his first solo museum exhibition at Texas's Dallas Contemporary provides the most thorough overview of his work to date, on view through August 10th. His most recent paintings, hosted by Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin, take on an exorbitantly imposing and seductive quality that might make you pretty uncomfortable. We discussed his evolution over the last five years, the underlying "displacement of subjectivity," and his current ownership of the "Muir Beach Acid Test" aesthetic.
LM: The "Most Wanted" series at WhiteCube in 2011 received little criticism in comparison to your more recent output. Did you feel any type of leap between the series and the hotly contested 2012 show at Gagosian?
RP: Yeah, there really was. "Most Wanted" was like a reassembling of received material to create a false relationship between brands and brands. That set-up processed selected elements in the system of media to create these kinds of abstract experiences that talked about those subjects. With the paintings for the Gagosian show I started with the idea of making films. The films, or the photo-shoot in Adriana's case, were direct collaborations with the actor or model that already had significant meat and infrastructure behind them. Like an essay, it's an expressive entity, it's a motion portrait of that moment.
LM: Was there any direction given?
RP: There was, and those directions were based on story boards I had made ahead of time that were based on Bergman and Godard or David Lynch and the MacGillivray brothers, surf films and underground surf films from the 60s. When they were shown to the media and the placeholders were taken from the film, the most popular ones became the candidates for the paintings.
LM: Speaking of acute decisions, G.W. Bush's premier as a painter coincided with the opening of your show at Dallas Contemporary. The birds have been clucking about both shows.
RP: There's no way that W could ever get close to my painting in a certain sense. He's an amateur weekend painter who happened to be a world leader and, in many people's eyes, a committed war criminal. I was, in my exhibition [in Dallas], forced to remove his painting from my show because the trustees of the museum were offended by the proximity of my painting of Bush to another painting, the title painting, called The Negation of the Universe. In my exhibition in 2001, the paintings were in the exact same relationship to one another in the gallery in New York—but when you do a show in Dallas, and you set up this relationship, that many years later, it doesn't have the resonance. There are consequences for that. It's the difference between my work and the president's work. There's no consequence to looking at his work, to any of the images whatsoever. But if I make a picture of the president and it's seen, there's public outcry because it's in correspondence with other works of mine. Right now people are willing to censor, and at their own institutions that they support, because they can't reconcile their own political ventures with their artistic interests. I think that that's an important thing to bring up but, on the other hand, it's a way that my work functions and the way that it can change. I think that paths that open possibility excite me.
LM: I appreciate that.
RP: When I was looking at the works in Dallas, it was difficult to know what was new and what was old because the images have presented themselves in different ways. Some of the newest ones, like the one of Lindsay holding the surfboard, is so unreachable. When I looked at it, it was unreachable to me. It looks like you couldn't do it—I like that. It becomes a singular experience. I think a lot of painting today, how it's manufactured, eradicates that potential and does so for conceptual reasons and on purpose because it comments on a kind of level of detachment. But if you do want to take that risk, it always holds open the possibility and I always think of specific paintings that I've seen over history and you go back to them, whether it's the Fra Angelico or Bronzino at the National Gallery in London or El Greco at the Met.
LM: Let's talk a little about your new works in Berlin.
RP: They bring me back to my earliest painting experiences in the East Village, where paintings were meant to be backdrops to hang out with. The scale is so big in a lot of cases because I didn't want them to seem like dolls. I really have this resistance to Ramos…they look really cool but in the end they do seem actually sexist to me. I feel like they're crass and I know that that's not the point of them but I don't feel like they transcend themselves. I know my work has been directly associated with that negative side of Ramos and negative side of Rosenquist in a certain sense but I think this body of work runs that over. It kind of almost describes the experience of rock and roll—it's this idea, this thing, this performance, set up to annihilate. It's an anarchic, destructive force that at the same time enriches and creates the health of spirit and mind and sensation.
LM: Using a subject like Catrinel Menghia, who is a little more anonymous, also helps with that.
RP: It started by working with Prince and Jacob from Galore and Love magazine. Their punk aesthetic was what drove the project: making punk Vasarely, surf punk Lichtenstein, combining these languages and then throwing her in front of it. It was really about the fact that she embodies a kind of sexuality and her ability to project that, and knowingly so. It was a very hit-and-run type of set up using a hand-held point-and-shoot camera, no lighting—using a flash and just blasting her. It has more to do with this type of forced aesthetic of the immediate. They move away from the patient replication of the originality of those pictures. It was like making the paintings fun for themselves rather than trying to represent. That was a big step for me; to let go of trying to recreate anything and actually just create it on the canvas the way it seemed to look. The emphasis on being present with the painting and not having to recreate anything was a big jump away from what happened formerly at the show at Gagosian. That was about recreating the cinema feeling in a painting, so when you walked in and saw the video and came out, there was this sense that painting was congealing with the moment. There was a deal being made—you see the paintings before you go into the film, and you see the paintings pop up in the film, and then when you leave the film you see the film while you're looking at the paintings, stuck in the back of your head like a pop song you can't get out of your head.
LM: Both series, however, seem to elongate time despite the discomfort in processing them. The new work taunts the viewer, even dissolving the de facto viewing experience of Pop art. Are you baiting us?
RP: It was playful distortion and the irreverence toward the source. I happened to be listening to an inordinate amount of Grateful Dead, and I absolutely did not ever listen to it growing up at all, because it was something that could be so entirely dissociative and yet I got sucked into it. It's also a formal conceit that all those artists actually played with. Lichtenstein did Matisses and Picassos; same thing with Wesselmann. That's some shit I don't like, to quote Chief Keef. The vibe of a type of acid culture or surf punk culture is applied to these reverential works of art that are supposedly telling us something special. At a certain point I lost the script (chuckles)—'this is not that interesting...I actually don't really care about this, so then it was a massive crisis. And what do you do? You just break out the Day-Glo and everything's fine.
LM: Make it yours.
RP: As far as I know, I own the NO FEAR aesthetic in relation to Roy Lichtenstein for the foreseeable future. I own Muir Beach Acid Test, in relationship to Victor Vasarely. I own models climbing on top of Robert Indiana sculptures. I was working on the painting during the time that his show was up and what was his show called? Beyond Love; which I thought was hilarious because I'm here painting this picture that only reinforces the very thing that that artist was trying to escape. Catrinel climbing up on top of it made it into a super duper art work. With Catrinel, art became the set up. Art became texture and social conditions.
LM: What do you think being put into the Pop art canon?
RP: I like it. There's a propagandistic forcefield where there's an assumption, meaning that the imagery is the thing that is super real but it's not. It's actually the displacement of subjectivity, and that's how it manipulates. That's something that's really prevalent when you see the body of work in Dallas. You feel like you're being messed around with psychologically when you go from one subject to another—it's intended. There is a tendency to believe in the subject that's presented and forget what else could be behind it, whether it's this blank canvas of stationary or a giant painting of a wave at night. That's the thing that operates on the mind, and it's political too. You think of what art engages and what it ignores. I look at the works that I did from 2007 and the Bush regime and I really feel that people have forgotten what we're living under. If you're making works that are forgetting the circumstances that you are in, then you are tacitly supporting those agendas. The Bush administration looks like a pussy cat in comparison to the Obama administration and what they're doing around the world. I don't believe in art as a decoration. Although I was inspired in some ways by the Sunday painting of my grandparents, it's kind of quaint, something to do when you've retired from sending thousands of people to their deaths. It's something I reject like the quaintness of an American president as an artist. He's not an artist.
LM: Jonathan Franzen discusses two types of fiction writers: Status and Contract. The Status writer prides himself on difficulty in the creation of a work meant to stimulate the reader. Contract writers compose in agreement with the reader. This is definitely the battle waged by many writers I know, but does it apply to art as well?
RP: It's interesting because if we look at Contract writing then it becomes the divination of, or the pointing towards it as, art. It would take a third party to say this Contract stuff is cool. It's something that would turn up on the W Magazine blog—'Contract Writing is Cool: read these things and experience what Contract Writing is today and you'll be entering into a level of contemporary erudite understanding.' But it's that sense of communal agreement that is undone as much by the kind of the pushing back of the intellectual writer as the submission of the Contract writer.
LM: A Contract artists seems like they'd be radioactively irrelevant after a certain point, or over-represented; a Status artist, for all their efforts to challenge, may never be accepted or initiated into the club.
RP: There's still a great deal of potential in terms of a subject that doesn't discount the viewer and doesn't discount art's capacity for being a first language—a language that is just ahead of all other forms, that influences and changes things ahead of any other type of communication. I really believe in that. It's perverted by the fact that we have an art entertainment system that builds itself up as an agreed upon understanding of what art is, but it's really not that. Art is at the limit of what we can possibly understand as actually being art. We've moved on from that first binary relationship with Pop art and the viewer, but at the same time are finding balance and sensitivity that exists 60 years on. When we think of artists that took it past the point of it being comprehensible as art, it's at those limits that art actually exists. Everything else is made to look like it. If there's one thing that Allan McCollum did make a great deal of sense about, its that the ridiculousness of this kind of subordinate, surrogate experience that is ever present.