Why Would a Serious Artist Paint Robert Pattinson?: A Q&A With Richard Phillips
Why Would a Serious Artist Paint Robert Pattinson?: A Q&A With Richard Phillips
For "Most Wanted," a new show that is slated to open at White Cube in London next week, painter Richard Phillips — acting as the official pied piper of tween celebutantes — has lured the A-list of the precociously sultry set into the gallery and trapped them there, where they toothily smile out at star-struck passersby. OK, that's not exactly what he's done. Actually, in the show, which will run through March 5, Phillips is displaying ten large-scale oil paintings of Taylor Swift, Zac Efron, Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Robert Pattinson, Chace Crawford, Taylor Momsen, and (one of these things is not like the other one) Leonardo DiCaprio.
Each member of this horde of wisdom-toothless white folk is depicted in Technicolor, against a backdrop festooned with luxury corporate logos, and each star is painted with Richard Bernstein-ian halos hovering around their heads. Riffing on those addictive red-carpet photos that we all scroll through in an US Weekly-induced trance, these lurid works look like something produced by a teenybopper who’s been boning up on his/her Alex Katz. ARTINFO corresponded with the artist, who was in London to install the new show.
Your new work seems to address the ways in which young, sexy celebrities have become commodities — luxury products along the lines of those things sold by the companies featured in your backdrops. But this idea of selling youth, selling celebrity (and selling artistic reproductions of both) isn't really new or shocking at this point. What is different about how you tackle these issues, versus your Pop predecessors, except in the fact that you're depicting new celebrities?
In a way these paintings are no different from monochrome paintings one might find on view at a Modern art institution except that they have acknowledged what must be present for their own survival and preservation. The logos have come off the step-and-repeats at the museum's gala entrance and the celebrities are now joined with them to manifest this new economic realism in painting. The young stars within this series define our present condition of the inescapable and total subordination to this logic on every level of culture. Rather that being engaged in idolatry or showing how stars are "just like US" or even showing how artists can be just like stars, the "Most Wanted" paintings were synthesized from the aggregated images of the red carpet context to portray entertainers giving their carefully rehearsed expressions precisely for indiscriminate commercial endorsement. Art institutions are not exempt from falling all over themselves to beg for funding by either aligning themselves with these brands or having any one of these young stars appear at their event to gain "relevance" in a popular media which ultimately has a direct bearing on their budgets and attendance. The fact that institutions such as Guggenheim and MoMA have recognized and responded to this condition with their Armani and their Tim Burton shows respectively points to the eradication of the separation between art production and celebrity/media culture that the 50-year-old inception of Pop art failed to address.
Your work appeared on "Gossip Girl," and now the "Most Wanted" series includes images of actors from the show. What's the significance of this intertextuality, this cultural loop that you've inserted yourself into?
For "Gossip Girl," Art Production Fund initially approached me about contributing a painting because they had been asked by the production designers of the show to curate the art on set. My painting "Spectrum" from 1999 was chosen to be hung over the staircase in the "Van der Woodsen loft," which is one of the main sets for the show. When I went to check out the installation and observe scenes they were shooting I was very impressed by the degree to which the show's producers, directors, and production designers were aware of their involvement in a first-order projection of popular art as an integrated synthesis of the social cues embedded in fashion, cinema, art, and tabloid media compared to the 50-year-old idea of simply holding a mirror to popular culture and reproducing its image. The evolutionary difference is articulated in script changes based on current news items in the NY Post, ensemble acting, product endorsements, and the cameos from all sectors of culture that serve the purpose of changing people's perception of how they could imagine themselves in a completely immersive drama loop of unending life/commerce luxury/degradation patterns (to borrow from Jeff Koons). As I was leaving the set I jokingly asked about my cameo, and they said casting would call me the following week. And so it was that I appeared on the episode "Serena Also Rises"!
There's a portrait of Leonardo DiCaprio in your upcoming show, but he seems of a different heartthrob generation than the "Twilight" crew, Miley Cyrus, et al. Why include him?
Leonardo was included in the group of men because he is the absolute archetype of success in the entertainment system, from his early years as a child television actor to his global teen superstardom to his recent Oscar-nominated performances. Leonardo represents every dimension of what is desirable in creative celebrity endorsement relations and as such literally cast a long shadow from which the rest of these young stars must emerge. The original selection of the male entertainers resulted from a conversation I had with Steven Gan and Dominic Sidhu, of VMan magazine, who had approached me to do a layout of paintings of the most popular male stars working today. The original group discussed included more of the older stars but I argued that past Leonardo they must connect to the power of the younger audiences in the area of film, music, television, and in some cases the combination of all three. Once the group of young men were established, the same criteria was used to select the women, who had to have been born after 1990.
Does the title of your show — "Most Wanted" — directly refer to Andy Warhol's "Thirteen Most Wanted Men" silk screens from the 60s? How do you see your project in relation to this earlier work?
The title does refer to the earlier series by Warhol. My "Most Wanted" series is meant to be a conceptual inversion and physical negation of Warhol's ironic gesture of giving prominence to anonymous suspects with no thought to the consequences of their alleged criminal actions in society. The inversion relates to the obvious disparity in the reasons for their notoriety and the desire to capture them. The physical negation refers to the fact that my paintings began where Warhol left off as gray photo silkscreens of composite images onto which I painted a non-photorealistic portrait of the celebrity that emphasized the nuances of their psychological projection of their commercial state of being. The connection between the two groups is that neither of the subjects would care to be remembered for the context or for the image created but both were absolutely compelled to submit to photographic record one for commerce and one for state. The use of a scaled-up method of traditional oil painting that was historically designed to create the uncanny presence of flesh is meant to literally embody these paintings with an amplified sense of what is desired, unreachable, and yet all-consumable and then make it as inhumanly present as our bodies are absent in the media from which we receive them.
The paintings almost begin to look like teenybopper posters — like something you'd paste on your wall as a 12-year-old. And the weird thing about those posters is that they represent a kind of pre-sexual fetishization. How does sex play into these images?
The paintings are designed to emphasize the heightened state of celebrity presence. The outlines around the portraits serve as secular halos which are meant to separate these stars from a dimensional representation of reality. Though they are modeled with flesh-toned paint, the overall feeling is that of a decal that one might buy in a supermarket. My intention of using a painterly realism and tween decal formalism is to build an irreconcilable visual condition. This feeling of irresolution is closely associated with many of the forms of entertainment running the gauntlet of pre-adult life. For all of these entities, the prohibition of overt sexual or non-heterosexual behavior is strictly maintained in order to increase the appearance that these stars are involved in producing. If one looks at the "Twilight" series objectively, a comparison could be drawn to the avant-garde practice of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, or Steve Reich. Instead of sustaining a note or holding an awkward position or repeating an appropriated rhythmic progression, the actors of "Twilight" sustain irresolvable teenage emotions for 2 1/2 hours without any sexual release. The production of this experience taps into a universal tween condition that once passed through can only be accessed again through externally induced psychological trauma. Sex is omnipresent in all these images but is experienced unreservedly only by those currently going through availability and the capability to satisfy forbidden sexual desire. All of this translates to a multi-billion dollar industry that may or may not lend its agency of legitimization to raise awareness of that which has the pretense to call itself contemporary art.