Richard Phillips: Negation of the Universe
Richard Phillips (born 1962) is, depending on your point of view, one of the most important hyper-realist painters alive today or a gifted wastrel, squandering his talent painting monuments to meaninglessness. His work solicits a wide range of reactions: admiration of his technique, disinterest with the superficial celebrities he depicts, or disgust with his objectification (or re-objectification) of women. Love him or hate him, his entire career is laid bare in Rizzoli’s monograph of his work, Negation of the Universe. Nearly everything is on view, from his 1996 breakout show at Edward Thorp Gallery to his exhibitions from last year. The works included range from his most famous and widely-publicized paintings such as Scout (1999) to his recent experiments with sculpture and film. There are a few of Phillips’s paintings that are missing from this book as individual plates, but their number can be counted on one hand. In fact, by my calculation, this monograph is just a few plates shy of a catalogue raisonné.
The trajectory of Phillips’s career has seen his content mutate and shift while his form has stayed more or less the same: large-scale hyper-realistic oil paintings are the trademark of his practice. His particular manner of painting is not far removed from his photographic or cinematic source material, as his models are represented on canvas without much painterly flourish. He doesn’t render the shadow of every pore in the manner of Gottfried Helnwein, instead presenting his models after the camera and the airbrush have flattened and “perfected” their portraits for public consumption. That’s not to say that he does nothing but copy photographs: he tends to render hair in identical spaghetti-like tendrils and depicts skin in “Flesh Tint,” seemingly straight from the tube with chalky white highlights. The ragdoll yarn hair and silicone skin tones transform his figures into fakes of fakes. His paintings present a manufactured and artificial world, any reality having been filtered out by the media and through the artist’s own hand.
When looking at paintings in a book or on the internet, one of several major attributes lost in translation is a painting’s scale. A painting could be six inches tall or six feet tall, but in print or online it is forced into the frame of the page or the screen. Negation solves this problem in an elegant manner by presenting each painting in the context of its first exposure with gallery and museum shots next to the individual plates Vote Mitt Romney (2012), for example, looks very different installed salon-style at the Rauschenberg Foundation than displayed alone on a page and takes on a different (and possibly more transgressive) meaning in that setting, calling out the right-wing sympathies of some of the moneyed elements of the art world (including his dealer, Larry Gagosian, who has donated money to Republican candidates).
By presenting Phillips’s oeuvre as it would have been seen by someone following his work in galleries and museums, Negation draws attention to the ways in which his subject matter has changed with time. Phillips started out painting chiefly from fashion photographs before branching out into pornographic imagery around 2000, and more recently has shifted towards images of contemporary celebrities. His most recent work has seen him zero in on two particular models: Lindsay Lohan and former porn star Sasha Grey. These are also depicted in films, presented here as several pages of screenshots, but due to the obvious limitations of the book format cannot be as neatly displayed as the paintings. His brief foray into sculpture/installation, the apparently illegal Playboy Marfa (2013), is also included. A monograph just of his paintings would have been perfectly acceptable, but the inclusion of his experiments in other media gives the impression of an artist not content with just being “that guy who paints big celebrity paintings.” While the success of his more diverse ventures is up for debate, their inclusion in this monograph is a welcome, if brief, diversion from his traditionalist output.
Several pieces included in Negation show Phillips’s engagement with not only the worlds of celebrities, fashion and porn, but with the art world itself. Ann Lee (2002) quotes the transmedia project No Ghost Just a Shell by Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, in which the duo purchased the rights to a Japanese manga character named Annlee and invited other artists to produce collaborative works with her image. An earlier painting, Jacko (After Jeff Koons) (1998), reproduces the head of Koons’s famous sculpture of Michael Jackson (minus Bubbles in this case). Pre-Banality (2007), a monochromatic painting showing a naked woman riding a pig, references another sculpture by Koons, Ushering in Banality (1988). Phillips’s past quotations of Koons seem serendipitous, since Koons’s retrospective has dominated artistic discourse around the time of this book’s release. Such quotations also seem appropriate: both artists have been accused of producing big shiny meaningless objects for billionaires.
The book includes an interview with the artist by Beatrix Ruf, director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amseterdam, and an essay by German philosopher Marcus Steinweg, for whom “Richard Phillips’s images portray the theater of desire and the dialectic of fulfillment and disappointment that correlates to it.” For those who, in contrast to Professor Steinweg, are offended or bored by Phillips’s subject matter and content (or lack thereof, some would say), this monograph will not likely change any minds. Some may find his paintings offensive and complicit in the objectification of women. I personally see his work in the tradition of classical history painting, elevating and immortalizing the individuals and narratives our culture has, rightly or wrongly, imbued with value. Being able to see the vastness of his oeuvre may serve to dispel at least one myth: that Phillips only paints pretty women.
Richard Phillips: Negation of the Universe. Essay by Marcus Steinweg, Interview with the artist by Beatrix Ruf. New York: Rizzoli, 2014. 288pp. ISBN: 978-0-8478-4390-9. $85.00print