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“Repelled. I don’t even want to get close enough to see if they are good paintings,” a friend said when I asked him about Richard Phillips, and I know the feeling. I remember approaching his last show at Gagosian in 2012 — oversize, “ultra-real” oil paintings of Lindsay Lohan — thinking: I don’t care about this celebrity garbage! So I took Dionne Warwick’s advice and walked on by.
I regret not checking to see if they were in fact good paintings, not because it was petulant of me (a right I continue to reserve), but because my reason for dismissing them was so conventional, representing the consensus attitude of New York’s “serious people.” And who wants to be one of them?
Now is an interesting time to reconsider Phillips, thanks to “Conversations,” a show of experimental new paintings at Mathew NYC, an outpost of the Berlin gallery that has recently moved, like a graceful hermit crab, into the space formerly occupied by 47 Canal. This small exhibition is a kind of artistic midlife crisis for Phillips, which poses a novel question: If the usual material of your art — sports cars and starlets — already comprises mainstream stereotypes of a dude’s rage against age, how does one act out? Phillips’s answer is to return to the kind of angry abstraction he looked at during his first crisis of faith, when, while a graduate student at Yale in 1984, he commenced an eight-year hiatus from painting. Now Phillips “reconstitutes” (as he puts it) the most audacious anti-painting paintings he saw around that time: Christopher Wool’s Untitled (1988), made with a store-bought decorative roller; and Albert Oehlen’s “computer paintings” series (1990–2008). Phillips has turned these sparse black-and-white images into vinyl stencils, masques for applying Technicolor paint to digitally printed pictures. In the case of Conversation I and II (both 2015) the Oehlen pixelation is laid down in a fluorescent off-rainbow gradient onto smoke-glazed photos of model Leanna Decker that the artist took for Playboy. In Canyons I and II (both 2015) the negative space of Wool’s painting is smoothed onto prints of a serape.
All four paintings possess a terrific formal intelligence and an unusually high level of consideration; they would be interesting abstract paintings in their own right. From a distance they coalesce into buzzing, fully integrated images that separate on approach. The effects of color and light, matte and sheen, are themselves very satisfying. But Phillips doesn’t let you off that easy. In Canyons II, for instance, as soon as you open yourself to the visual experience — savoring the lavender fondant-like paint carefully spread over the gradient of the woven blanket beneath it — you crash into a Playboy bunny logo at the lower left. The pleasure of looking is never allowed to become untethered from its highly contentious social context.
“Richard sees painting as a perfect vehicle to deliver just the right kind of cultural damage he wants to inflict,” Matvey Levenstein, a painter who was Phillips’s classmate back at Yale, told me. And indeed, in conversation Phillips comes across more as a cultural anthropologist than the cynical playboy many take him to be. Talking with him, I envisioned his art as a dye injected into the cultural bloodstream, making visible the systems it’s passing through. From this vantage, television shows like Gossip Girl, MAC cosmetics ads, and art-theory-minded magazines like Texte zur Kunst are all equally valid places for his paintings to find themselves. And that they circulate with such ease from one body part to the next, from “serious art” to “pop culture” and back again, just shows how unified the contemporary media’s corpus really is. We may not like this fact illustrated in this way, but liking or not liking is not the point. This is how Phillips perfectly aligns with the present generation of young post-internet artists, where trying to figure out what’s celebratory or critical is somehow asking the wrong question. It also renders irrelevant — or, at the very least, not much fun — the debate about whether the paintings are ultimately good or bad. In their way, they don’t let you get close enough to decide.
Richard Phillips: ‘Conversations’
47 Canal Street
Through December 29