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August 2009, Follow Up Interview with Richard Phillips

Photo credit: Benjamin Norman

After meeting Richard Phillips at the M.A.C Fall 2009 Launch party and having a short conversation with him, it was obvious I needed a more thorough discussion of his controversial works. I picked his brain over lunch and got to the bottom of his innovative redefinition of art’s intentions, how much more the individual factors into the viewing experience, and his conspiracy theory of collaboration.

Richard Phillips: I'm doing an upcoming project with the Swiss Institute involving my work and a painter Adolf Dietrich, who was a Swiss painter from the 1870's to 1950's. He was falsely was considered an outsider artist and made beautiful paintings, landscapes, and portraits, and scenes in this little town that he lived in Berlingen. They’re heartbreakingly beautiful, very sensitive paintings. So we're going to pair them with my work, and I’ve actually made paintings of his paintings. The background of the painting that inspired the one for M.A.C was actually an Adolf Dietrich painting.  

Lynn Maliszewski: Are you Swiss?

RP: No, I’m not. The funny thing is I came upon his work at this restaurant in Zurich, and Peter Fishley pointed out this drawing of two squirrels in a tree. I thought it was just one of the most sensitively, beautifully rendered drawings, and a friend of mine, the curator there, gave me a book of the artist’s work. I ended up making a very large painting of the painting that was inspired by that drawing, the one with the squirrels in the tree. It was the only time that I've ever been challenged in copyright - by the museum that kept those paintings. Fortunately, my friend stepped in and told them the type of work that I do and what its significance is. Anyhow, we're working on that together.  

LM: Have you come up with copyright issues often?

RP: I've made it very clear in every time that I’ve had a chance to speak on the issue that the work is not attempting to violate copyright. And I do credit, in the titles for my work, the main source or any type of reference. I do everything I can because it isn’t really about confusing people as to where its coming from. Even in the images that are taken from a runway shot, I've credited the photographer Don Ashby, who's the premier runway photographer. But other than Dietrich, I’ve not. It's really because I try to be as clear as possible. It’s really not that type of procreation art. It's more of a second order of procreation art, where if reflects back on conditions, and not exactly the source.  

LM: With collaged images it’s easy to criticize an artist for using outside images as their main source. Your images acquire symbols, and yearn to use them simultaneously within and outside of their initial placement. You claimed you wanted to make your images ‘the first projection of culture’ - the jumping point from which culture interacts visually. Tell me a little about your early artistic career in New York.  

RP: I was sort of the first of my group of friends to have success in the art world, and also the first one to completely lose it, down to zero. Like, subzero. So while they were ascending to the heights I literally had done this very steep arch and by 1990, after getting to New York in ‘86, I had no career and could hardly even get a job.

I started out working with sculpture. To sum it up real quickly, when I was in art school I became very interested in the work of Palermo and his fabric paintings. As a starting point, when I got to New York and had all of the fabric and leather industry in close reach, I ended up making these baroque wall relief sculptures inspired by Palermo, with leather as the skin of the painting rather than paint. I had an unlimited palate because of the manufacturing here, so I just began using different formats and different materials, and staging exhibitions in a kind of abstract wantonness. But by 1990 I got to a point where I felt more like an upholsterer than I did an artist. It caused a kind of crisis of faith and art and production. Then the recession hit super hard and my career basically ended. I literally began drawing to entertain my friends with a sharpie pen and typewriter paper.

In 1992, I started painting again, and the first paintings I did were based on four images of ‘Transsexual Surprise,’ which is a convention in transsexual pornography where there is a date of some sort and then, at some point, there’s a very big surprise because its not going the way that people thought that it was going to go. So I used this as a metaphor for painting and for art in general. I was offered a show right away and then was completely eviscerated in the press for doing it, because in 1992 identity politics were very strongly taking hold. That was my first soirée into painting.

Then I had a lot of narrative, psychologically debased images that I was working on. It took until about 1995 to get rid of the narrative side of it and start working more in iconographic, stabilized imagery. I did the first group of pictures based on 60’s and 70’s fashion because it literally was a disregarded form of art. It was an avant-garde form of art that, if the heterosexist establishment wasn’t looking at things the way it was, would have been on par with Pop Art. The interesting thing is that the photographers were really at the limit, technologically and visually, of what art could be doing at that time and yet it was not taken seriously simply because it was related to female image production for commercial use, which was utterly ironic. So I decided to use oil painting as a convention to infuse this aesthetic with a trajectory of avant-garde practice. And, further, to reference painting from the time when realism and super-realism and similar strategies were permanent, but then to remake it with a technique that emphasized flesh and emphasized beauty and physical presence. This was really, in a way, something photography couldn’t do at the time. I literally ran two premises about art together and made a show that was very psychologically empty because it was just fashion imagery. It was never meant to be empty. I just put the works up in the gallery with no explanation as to what it could be. It was really the first exhibition where fashion and so called art came together, and it got a poor response.  

Even today, the most successful and talented photographers working in that realm have people doubt their art because there is presumed to be a negative or derivative sense to what they’re doing. I have never believed that. It was the platform from which I began the work that I'm involved in, and it has taken on different elements over time. Pornography as a form of representation, as a culture and as a message carrier has been a percentage of my work - like sex is a percentage of our lives, hopefully. My work addressed sex like it addresses politics, like it addresses social economics.

LM: Despite the progression away from 70’s imagery and into more current issues such as those envisioned in New Museum and America, an emphasis on, as opposed to a reference to, sex still exists. Do you think sex is the best way to express your point of view?

RP: That’s a part of it. In my last show there were about seven paintings. Two paintings had sexual imagery, and the rest either had political, social, fashion or beauty imagery. So sex, again, was literally a percentage of the show. The way images attract our attention, the way they have power, the way that culture assesses that power, and how that power is used both positively and negatively are all factors. That's how I address the imagery in my work; it represents constellations within society and image production. My previous show in L.A looked at that in terms of how malevolent power harnesses images to create propaganda that obscures their own factions. In that show there was imagery of a child soldier, there was a portrait of Fra Angelico's panel in The Last Judgment and then there was an image of Goring letterhead, the stationary of the hunting association. There was also a nude riding a pig that was titled Pre-Banality. There is a particular way in which assumptions about what art is capable of doing, how it communicates, and its relationship to power structures arise outside of commerce. Fictions of value and the claims we make towards them are very interesting to look at. The New Museum show, with the painting “New Museum” of two men at the Bowery in 1973, was really made in order to open up discussion around the claim and the concept of a ‘new museum’. To have that, then, be the title of my show at Gagosian Gallery was intended to specifically target a consideration of both the gallery and museum establishment, and how they relate. At first there was a resistance to that on both sides, I would say. I think that once it was in the show, it was is in context, and could be seen uninterrupted the way it asked to be. It isn’t a didactic lesson on any of these subjects. It has much more to do with locating the subject in the predisposition of the viewer.  

LM: Our predisposition towards certain assumed equalities is challenged in your work, via its consideration of male versus female as well as painting versus photography.  

RP: There’s a tendency for my work to be read, particularly in America, very flatly, and to assume that the image is responsible for the negative attributes, rather than being an agent in setting up a dialogue regarding what is being portrayed or what is being re-imaged.

LM: It seems as though a stark distinction may somewhat naturally arise between international viewers and American viewers. Your work may be seen as a product of America and, specifically, New York.  

RP: The Der Bodensee image in my last show was from a British magazine. It had been taken from the cover of a Swedish erotic magazine from the 80’s that I had made a painting of. It became a symbol of the way in which male sexual aggression is modified in pornography, then turned into art, and then sold through private institutions as a vehicle for artistic credibility. That piece was terribly complicated yet terribly uncomplicated. In one way it was an offensive image, but on the other hand it was more of an explosion of the idea that pornography is used with a wink as a carrier of meaning. It is sold and used for all kinds of different purposes - as a commodity itself and as an instrument to validate the existence of certain types of media. The work was on one hand a sexual image that was violent towards women and, in a way, abhorrent on many levels. In another way, it was meant to be as critical as possible, particularly within the context within which it was shown. The same goes for the Fundraiser painting. It was a way in which art becomes a vehicle for its own consumption. One element is hidden to promote another, one is privileged over another, and this creates other kinds of meanings. Those two paintings operate in a private and public sense. The pose questions about the relationship between public and private, as well as about how funds are used now that they're being generated.

LM: These multiple meanings you have build on yet contradict each other so astutely that it incites discomfort.

RP: Even with the men, in looking at two guys drinking wine or a model posing as a soldier, violence is somehow acceptable. It is consumed at enormous levels in American culture. With military culture, violence is kept separate to the point that they eroticize and create the desire within young men to become a fictional model and literally put themselves in harm’s way. So “Message Force Multiplier” in this show, the portrait of the marine taken out of context and put into one of Adolf Dietrich's landscapes, is meant to reinvest in that image what it was not supposed to have in the first place.

LM: The two extremes are presented and recline into neutralization, thus forcing them into a new entity in themselves. It exposes the ploy for what it is and reinvents the image into a completely dynamic force.

RP: What actually escapes and becomes resonant is the art experience - the moment of actually being in front of a picture and thinking about what its symbols mean. It undoes the propaganda. It shifts it. It does something that film and video and installation cannot do. It has insurgent potential because people let their guard down and automatically think it’s art. I start from that premise. My work starts with how to use that potential either positively or negatively. It is a process of negating the functionalization of painting as an art and having it open up its insurgent potential.  

LM: But through this motion of repurposing images, you manage accomplish severe degradation of the initial image without ever forcing it onto your viewer.  

RP: Forcing it would really, necessarily stop the potential for communication because I'm not participating in a rhetorical structure that has to protect its own sovereignty as a locatable meaning. The instability of the images and the lack of safety that they have is the thing that leaves them open to be really misread. It’s not something that I wish to play safer, because we don’t live in a safe situation in the first place, anyhow. We can only believe that it is such by avoiding a certain kind of reality. The meaning of my work is not the realism of painting - it’s the realism of the conditions that we are living in and the difficulty of knowing what's actually going on when you’re looking at something, when you’re looking at art, or anything else for that matter. Meanings can be really skewed and there is a great deal of susceptibility in my work for it to be incredibly skewed, and taken into different contexts. But that is a multi-dimensional function of my work. It can be instrumentalized, it can be used and abused, and used against itself, because there is literally no locatable or stable point to be traced back to.

LM: You’ve said you want your art to be a projection of contemporary culture. What do you think the return to figuration states about our culture?  

RP: Figuration is constantly with us, since we're human and make reflections of ourselves. What it does do, is link you up to a very long history of communication that people are drawn to regardless of period of time. My art works on the assumption that it’s not a withdrawal or retreat to this form, nor does it represent a reemergence of it. It’s a purposeful use of the form. I've chosen deliberately to work with painting and to explore its physical power as much as I possibly can, as a part of the content. There was a time where it was important, for political reasons, for a kind of marketing and critical strategy to be used in order to say that it was over with and should be dismantled - especially because of its relationship to the Social Realism of the Soviet Union. But the fantasy of it going away and reappearing is just a narrative created by people to promote specific agendas.  

LM: I agree with that statement, and furthermore find it interesting how much flack you and Currin have gotten for your style of figuration. How would you compare yourself to Currin, who uses the subject more so as a framework for further technical investigation and meditation on these other styles and other combinations of formalities?  

RP: If it must be read as dead then it’s been exhumed. My paintings are sort of like zombies that you cannot just shoot in the head and kill. They just come back. I feel that it is a non-issue, but I'm always happy to debate as if it were one, because its all about what one is trying to protect in terms of a kind of language, and I'm always curious to see where those vulnerabilities are, particularly with the different forms. Figure painting is a form to make art with and that’s all it is.  

LM: You don’t necessarily need to be drawing the hairs on your figures arm for it to be considered figurative painting.

RP: Although I can do that.

LM: How do you feel about someone eventually reformulating your own work, à la Rauschenberg's Erased De Kooning, in that sort of similar sector where you have no control over it?  

RP: I've seen my work being appropriated...

LM: Not in fashion, but rather strictly in the art world.

RP: I actually saw it on a club flier once. They used to have this party in the East Village and they used one of my paintings as one of their invitations. It was great because I'd walk down St. Marks Street and at the end of the night they’d just throw the extra invitations on the street and I'd see all my paintings thrown all over. As recently as this month, Merlin Carpenter used an image of me in an art advertisement for one of his shows. It was an actual photo of me placed in a photo collage. It played upon a satire in which I was some sort of art cop, which is an important symbol for him and his work. This is the way he works, and I feel like it’s completely normal for people who are working in a certain situations - there are bound to be images or representations that are beyond their, and my, intentions. Also, people are certainly entitled to read my work the way they do. It’s no different from Ken Johnson's review of my show in the New York Times, which really isn’t much different, itself, from the message that Merlin is trying to convey about art advertisements. They’re saying they disagree with the tug-of-war and it’s just important to raise the discussion. Of course, there will be satire and negative opinions, and I think that that's a very important part of things. It may become unsafe to write about, too, because you end up saying a lot about yourself and your relationship to those subjects when you do it, so it’s not that easy. It is meant to be problematized from the get-go, and I mean it.  

LM: Dealing with models and American politics tends to be something that can very easily be objectified.

RP: In each case, despite whatever exploited environments they may have come from, the images, particularly the fashion images, are agreements. I'm reflecting on and focusing them by selecting patterns of agreement and changing the way in which they are communicated, as well as changin the purposes of those communications. By taking them out of context and putting them into an “art situation” or in the case of the Sumka image, using an Iranian Neo-Nazi image on a Brazilian fashion model with Gap ads, the models are literally models, vehicles of communication. They are negations of the usefulness of communication, so then the fiction of their status as a commodity falls into the convention of what one is willing to accept in that regard. Beauty becomes an implement of distortion, and the manipulation of those distortions. The figures become vehicles for distorted messages. It’s less the original picture-style appropriation, where you’re looking at power through the lens of the sanctity of art and its critical potential. What is it about it that is a negative experience and how can one look at that? It’s not a necessarily nihilistic approach but it does come very close to Nihilism and Solipsism in that art is produced and consumed in an actual negative model regardless of the attributes that are laid on to try to make it into a positive venture. The ‘real’ is the potential for it to become a causal factor rather than just a benign point.

LM: How does abstraction figure into the present?  

RP: Abstract art is a deferral of how art functions and what guarantees its reading and what guarantees its safety. The privilege of abstract language is something that was pretty well and roundly solved in Koon’s Luxury and Degradation show, where he took the base realism of the forests, or the cheapest kinds of alcohol advertisements to the abstraction of the most expensive alcohol. He noticed in his train trip out of town that in Harlem you would see one kind of ad and as you got further out into suburbia, you’d see another to the point where you were in a very expensive part of the community where the swirls of Fra Angelico liqueur are understood. It literally has to do with a racist, classist, social understanding of art. It’s going from that point, which happened in 1987. I really venture to say that abstraction, in a certain sense, has more to do with its needing to keep away certain types of real issues that surround it. Although it is just as vital a form of expression, it may only be relevant to certain sectors. When you start using that comparison, then there is some place to go with it. Of course we're living in 2010 and not 1987, but that was how visionary that show was, it was an utter paradigm change.  

LM: It exposed the hierarchy of the culture.

RP: Yeah, from the cheap little figurines to the leather bound, water proof crystal liquor. The beauty hides the empty, negative, and kind of terrifying terror of capitalist society. I think the relationship between forms are anyhow arbitrary and variable, it’s just really what you do with them and what your understanding is, and then how you have them function. My paintings, if they get into any other type of context, start operating and doing their thing in different ways.  

LM: So what are you working on right now?  

RP: My next exhibition is going to be a little over a year from now, in Berlin. In a way, Berlin is a very interesting place right now because it is this kind of Bangalore of the art world, in the sense that it’s an inexpensive place for artists to create and produce. It’s in a way a whole production zone of cheap labor, of outsourced potential. Thinking about that perspective and Berlin as a city, and its dynamic over the past 50 years or so, presents a really interesting context. The structure of the show will look at the complexities of how cultures acquire other cultures and represent themselves through those acquisitions. In a way, it explores that idea of Nihilistic tendencies in art, and Solipsistic tendencies in art production, in relationship to trophies of culture and the way that cities tend to portray and sell themselves. It will look at those aspects through a constellation of images that will take on a number of different positions. I'm pretty excited about it. Not long after that I'm working on a show for London with White Cube, which I’ve already begun assembling the ideas for. London has its own set of issues, and that show will be starkly different. It’s not so site specific, but will be taking a part of my work and going very far into it, very far into a deeply and kind of deviant, difficult part of it.

LM: I enjoyed an earlier comment of yours about your work serving as civil disobedience. With the exhibitions in Berlin and London, they seem to be serving much more as a critique of the progression of culture, within and outside the functions of the art world.  

RP: There absolutely will be directed critical dialogue when I put these shows up, I think it will just take on different forms. The way I see Berlin and what it means now is very different from when I was going there quite a lot four or five years ago. It’s changed entirely in terms of what its function is and how it has been established as the place for the cultural experience, for the exchange of ideas. It ends up becoming kind of a playground, and in that sense there is a kind of juvenile aspect to it.

LM: And almost even volatile.

RP: London is even more extreme than New York in a certain way, particularly with the economic crisis. It’s the deeply perverted and really diabolical nature of London that is a way in which capitalism is undone in this collapse of the system that has shown the art world as a conspirator and guilty in every way. I think that it’d be fascinating to get into it.  

LM: Living in New York City for so long and being in constant conflict with all the media that smacks you in the face with no discretion, have you been inspired to look at imagery more thoroughly or to be more extensively critical of the media? Has it embittered you or augmented your awareness of it?

RP: It definitely influences what I do in the sense that it generates a capacity to consume a tremendous amount of information. To become dislocated and decentralized is a good thing. People can get all the media they want from other sources that are now omnipresent, which is a fascinating change. The notion of media as the hard form is becoming disembodied. Also, the capacity for people to degrade themselves or do whatever they can for the notion of reality, in reality television, or reality in general is incredibly negative. The notion of networks in and of themselves is completely being reformed. To address bitterness, if I was in any way a little bit, the one thing about New York is that if that happens to you, you end up being shown the door pretty quickly. I rarely am ever one to, at least consistently, run into bitterness from people that live in New York, because you can’t really afford it.  

LM: Once you get to that point you’re already over the line.

RP: You literally get thrown out. That’s one of the cold realities here. That’s where it is one giant reality show where you get voted off immediately if this becomes exposed. I was talking to someone recently who made an interesting point that, because of the climate happening right now, you’re there to create and literally not to survive. I'm not here to survive through this, because that would mean that somehow you want to return to the way things were. It’s literally the illusion of survival but the reality is to transform your circumstances and think into what you’re doing. The longer art tries to hold onto its old methods the longer it will erode until it can find a new way to deal with it. It will have to come through some other means. It’s not the tools you use; it’s really just how you use them. There’s no form, improvement of a form, or exaltation of a form that will help. That’s the exciting thing about it, though. I think New York has a particularly interesting position. I have a suspicion that it really is what you put into it that you take from it. When I was in Berlin very recently there was a sense of it being unaffected, that it was just positivity, good feelings, comfortable, and a livable situation in the art world. I’m skeptical of that level of comfort, and skeptical of the good feelings and good vibes look.  

LM: You can never be on an equal artistic playing field because people are pulling different things out of society. Cultural climates vary as you travel internationally and amongst individuals. That false sense of community and fancy-free production seems to blossom out of a certain grunge that emanates from Berlin and definitely Prague, at least when I lived there a year ago. 

RP: That idea of creation of art is a bloated and functionalized and subjugated role. It literally is the endpoint of the most negative dimension of capitalism. It cannot evade the larger context in which it’s being consumed and sent out. The oppositional modes, whether they’re just positive, good-feelings situations or abjectly critical anti-production developments or pure critique, don’t get out from underneath the problem. It becomes laziness.

LM: Sometimes that solidarity just forces people into these groups of zombies.

RP: The idea of community in that sense is literally just a cheap narcotic effect, sort of a cluster fuck of mediocrity. Maybe that sounds fascist.

LM: You also have the potential to lose a level of criticism if everyone is functioning in this idealized group mentality.

RP: There has to be an agreement to protect your planks in order to not be undone yourself. I think that idea of community, of collaboration... I'm entirely skeptical of this kind of academia. The academia of it is just another product to be sold. It’s a new kind of tourism of art. It’s interesting because for a moment it wasn’t. It was the failure to see its own development into a tourist enterprise that lead to a more comedic side of it. That’s why New York ends up having a very interesting and exciting potential yet again, because of the state it’s gotten to. The severely detrimental side to it is the fact there it is no longer this whole fantasy of it existing for music and art, or, from the other side of it, critiquing it as a sort of underground. It’s literally one’s capacity to be present in multi-forms and work within those distorted patterns, and to use them and abuse them, put pressure on them, appear as if you’re completely side by side with them on one hand, then turning around and having it be something completely opposed. Calling my show ‘The New Museum’ and putting up certain things in the show that I did was one type of action to take. Then, to turn around and repurpose my image for a commercial ends right on the heels of that, people said, ‘well why do you do that?’

LM: You're superficially contradicting yourself without forcing the point.  

RP: There is no contradiction because that only exists if you believe in the flatness of what’s presented to you. If that’s the case, then you believe a lot of other things, too, that are shaping your intellectual position or perceptions. In my calling Gagosian Gallery exhibition a New Museum, they put up a show that got more viewers than any museum in the city during the time of my show. We separate, put labels on and make claims to brands that are just setting up different jobs and different role-play, and that role-play is as perverse and as debased as any sort of S&M fantasy dungeon that exists in Chelsea. My relationship to art media is obviously going to be problematized by what I do with it, but I mean it.

LM: By placing yourself so blatantly in the commercial sphere, it bothers people immediately and brings up thoughts of selling out and cheating the system.

RP: It shows how one gives up one’s sovereignty and agency for institutions, for media, for one-on-one relationships. It really articulates how you're willing to debase yourself and what the endpoint of that is. Is it to ingratiate yourself with art systems and with the institution? I have no intention of doing any of that. However, I am absolutely willing to partner and appear with any one of those groups because that is the nature of how art defines itself. What I do with that and how I appeal to that in the distortions and the pattern changes that I go through, and the seeming hypocrisies that are the negative part, are literally just the same things that always exists there. And that does tend to piss people off on both sides of the coin.

LM: It immediately gauges people's perspective of it.  

RP: The idea that there’s going to be a democratic agreement or intent is, again, another fantasy that’s not my fantasy. Things are heavily weighted. Some things have to take subordinate roles, other ones will have dominant roles. Then there are those that are sort of agreeable to just about anything. Violence is attached if it has to be forced by social structures that inhibit people’s chances of having lives, and keeps them imprisoned. These things have to be looked at again and again.

LM: They will arise inevitably because a relationship still exists there. Once again, it is left open how people unite their environ and culture to influence their perception.

RP: While painting can appear to be passive, as a form of art it definitely travels.

Lynn Maliszewski

Lynn Maliszewski is a freelance writer and aspiring curator/collector residing in New York City. She can be reached at l.malizoo@gmail.com


PHOTO CREDIT: Benjamin Norman (
www.benjaminnorman.com)

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