On a recent afternoon in Long Island City, Richard Phillips—who has his first solo show in New York in three years on view at Mathew NYC on the Lower East Side—came to the door of his studio wearing jeans and a leather jacket. There was a motorcycle in the studio and assistants painstakingly filled in white spaces on canvases. In one corner there was a portrait of Taylor Swift. She was depicted in front of a sea of flames.
“Stephan Gan from V magazine contacted me about their upcoming issue, the people of 2015 issue,” Phillips told me. “You can’t think about 2015 without thinking about Taylor Swift. This is a press line image of her in her signature VMA hairstyle, having it pulled back. I looked at a zillion shots of her and I found that classic Taylor Swift side-eye.”
He walked up to the painting, looking closely at it. “And then I put the image over the Tianjin disaster,” Phillips said.
Taylor Swift popped up in “Most Wanted,” Phillips’s exhibition at White Cube in 2011. That show had paintings of ten of the most ubiquitous celebrities on earth—DiCaprio, Cyrus, Timberlake, Pattinson. They were painted neck-up, bright-eyed, and backlit by haloes. It looked like saints in the stations of the cross in a Catholic Church.
“Most Wanted” was a swipe at how fame and fashion have infected the art world, but many chose to see it as a symptom of that infection. By way of supporting that idea, naysayers pointed to the artist himself. Phillips premiered films at the Venice Biennale starring Lindsay Lohan and porn star Sasha Grey. He had one of his paintings prominently displayed on the permanent set of the television series Gossip Girl, and made a cameo himself. He also appeared as himself on the television series Work of Art on Bravo. He made makeup for MAC Cosmetics.
But that’s a shallow reading of the show, and regardless, the artist has moved on—the painting of Taylor Swift in Phillips’s studio was a red herring. The works in “Most Wanted” have little to do with his practice now, or with what’s on display at Mathew NYC. The four paintings in the show are split between woozy abstraction and multi-layered photo paintings, all of which wryly send up the controversies surrounding his work, the whiplash style of critical reaction, and the hypersensitivity of the art world.
And the location is key here. Mathew NYC, the New York outpost of a Berlin-based gallery, occupies the barebones tenement space on the Lower East Side once home to 47 Canal, a far cry from any soaring outpost of Gagosian Gallery, the gallery that represents Phillips.
“I met with them and they agreed that it was very urgent and they wanted to do the show now,” Phillips said, referring to his talks with Mathew NYC owner David Lieske. “This is a much smaller space and a space I know, having been to 47 Canal. And it’s a way to introduce this new approach and new body of work. It’s in cooperation with Gagosian, but working with Mathew is a way for me to get a completely different look at the work, especially on critical terms.”
Phillips walked up to two giant paintings that are in the show.
“Because of our immersive condition of commercial industrialism, it’s hard to see them how they are in the moment,” he said. “Having eschewed the ultra-real painting—having spent the last two years developing this methodology and work—it seemed like a great opportunity to work together.”
It’s also a bit of a homecoming. Phillips moved to the Lower East Side in 1986 after graduating from Yale. He lived with his friends—artists John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage—on the corner of Ludlow and Stanton until his studio burned down.
“I don’t think I ever did a show down there,” he said. “Unless you count the exhibitions I had alone in my studio.”
Another milestone: Mathew NYC has never before had a painting show. But Lieske said he was drawn to them right away and went about moving walls in the gallery and updating the lighting system to make it work. The reason for the high-octane brightness has to do with the overlaying colors in the works. All four have overlain patterns made alive by the fluorescent bulbs—two are appropriations of Albert Oehlen’s “Computer Paintings,” the other two are a pattern from a 1980 Christopher Wool, with the negative painted. (As of Friday, two of the four have already been sold.)
The Oehlen reconstitutions are overlaid atop images of a naked model writhing on the leather interior of an expensive sports car.
“The paintings started with a photo shoot I did with the model, whose name is Leona Decker, who was working with me on the Playboy project,” Phillips said, referring to work he did for the magazine that once focused on photo spreads of nude women. “I went over to Europe, and I was at the Kunsthalle Zurich and saw the great Oehlen exhibition there, and I came back and happened to see his exhibition at the New Museum. In the process of seeing these ‘Computer Paintings’ from the 1990s, it occurred to me that that was a way to resolve these works. It was all precipitated from a conversation I had with Albert about art, and a stern back and forth about the direction of art.”
He was touching the Oehlen overlay of bright green that’s placed above the nude woman in the car, which due to its placement and hue creates an optical illusion of depth.
“The painted part of the painting is a reconstitution or an appropriation of the ‘Computer Paintings’ put on their side, stuck directly on the surface of this photo output, and painted with this special paint that creates this luminous experience of fluorescent oil paint and color,” Phillips explained. “It then becomes an aperture into this world and obscures the model and makes it non-soft-core in kind of an aggressive way. This kind of drawing over the picture, and this hallmark of abstraction, created the perfect opportunity to look at this kind of language and create a declaration.”
About that Playboy project that Phillips mentioned earlier. In June 2013, Phillips erected an installation by Highway 90 in Marfa,Texas, a ’72 Dodge Charger on a platform with a 40-foot-tall neon Playboy Bunny behind it. It was commissioned by the curator Neville Wakefield and branding shaman Landis Smithers, who were then the creative directors of Playboy magazine. The synergy of art and commerce, plus the invocation of sex that accompanies any appearance of the iconic Playboy Bunny, caused quite the stir in a town that already has tensions between the Texas desert lifers and the arty beneficiaries of Donald Judd’s largess. There was a lot of public outcry—a headline in Texas Monthly proclaimed “Playboy Marfa Must Go. For Real This Time”—and soon the Texas Department of Transportation ordered the work to be removed within 45 days. Playboy Marfa came down just weeks after going up, when it was supposed to stay for a year. (It found a home at the Dallas Contemporary museum.)
Phillips never commented on the uproar. Instead, he made works that could comment on them. There is a Playboy Bunny logo in each of the four works in his new show.
“There is a playfulness to it, and it’s up for interpretation—and obviously the paints have to work on their own—but for me, it was taking an exhibition that was quite contentious, that had some upsides and some serious criticism leveled at me, and creating really beautiful artwork from those experiences,” he said. “It could be resolved in a visual way, rather than in a text.”
Rather than in a text, as in rather than on Twitter, a platform that some other artists have used to address matters of appropriation?
“Yes,” he said, laughing. “Like having some sort of tweet battle.”
And, by placing the message in the medium, the paintings themselves get to respond to the haters—the attack on Texas yokels who opposed his Marfa installations, to the critics who disliked his shows—in a way that also progresses his practice, as these works are among his strongest in years.
But it would be a stretch to call the always-friendly Phillips bitter over the whole kerfuffle. One could accurately describe him as chill, especially when he was discussing a new series for a future show that he calls his “hydroponic paintings,” as in hydroponic marijuana. The exquisitely green buds blooming on the canvas are appropriately dank, and by using Op-art techniques, Phillips has created an image that confuses the eye and leaves a lingering sense of dizziness.
“What started as a four-twenty joke ended up being a serious painting, as I wanted to create a painting that could optically give you the sensation of getting stoned even if you didn’t,” he said. “By painting them in a specific way, it creates this effect that never turns off.”
Then he told an anecdote of a visitor to his studio who was smoking weed.
“I was saying, I don’t get stoned,” he said. “But I can make a painting that will make you stoned.”