Thursday, July 12, 2012

Beer with a Painter: Matt Phillips

I met Matt Phillips in March, when he was part of our gallery's project at the Scope Art Fair.  Not only am I crazy about his paintings, but he is also an incredibly fun and enthusiastic person to talk to, about everything from eccentric baby-calming techniques, to seltzer water, to Ani DiFranco.

He and Andrea Bergart will be collaborating on a mural that will cover the gallery's walls in August, as part of our upcoming exhibition, The Jam, and I can't wait to see what they do.  He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where his work was shown at the Art Museum this past Spring.  He was also part of a group exhibition in Tel Aviv this summer, curated by Guy Yanai.   His abstract paintings feel to me like his personality -- serious and ambitious, but also quirky and fun and personal.

A while ago, my friend Ryan Cobourn suggested I do some interviews with painters that were more informal and rambling -- y'know, over beers!  It just seemed like one of those Ry ideas, until the SECOND person, Kyle Staver, looked at me a few weeks back and said, "You know what you should do-- a series of interviews called 'Beer with a Painter.'" So, without further ado... here's the first up.  Stay tuned for more.  Thanks so much, Matt!

Beer with a Painter: Matt Phillips
by Jennifer Samet

MP: So I’m sitting down to talk about my painting with a Ph.D. art historian.  Do your students call you Dr. Samet?

JS: Ha. No, they call me Professor. 

MP: Yeah.  I can’t do that with my students.

JS: They call you Matt?

MP: Yes.

JS: I would love it for my students to call me Jen. But they seem to get uncomfortable with that.  But I imagine as an art teacher, it’s a little different.

MP: Yes.  When you are in a studio environment, on the one hand you are teaching your students about making art, but on the other hand it is a big collaborative venture. In those moments, we are all in it together, and it would be weird for a student to be calling me “Professor.” Collaborative projects are amazing.  They give students a natural way to express what is happening in art.  You have a critique and no one wants to talk, and then you build a sculpture together, and everyone is like, “No, move it left! Move it right! The value’s wrong; the shape is wrong! The space is actually more like this, and it looks like this.”

JS: Yes, a critique is kind of an unnatural, fake experience.

MP: A critique is outside of art making. It is an important part of the practice.  But I think it is important to have it be a different practice.  

Matt Phillips, Untitled, 2012

JS: Whose voices do you hear in the studio, or how do you deal with that?

MP: You are always trying to work until those voices disappear.  If you’re that self-conscious, it is like driving with the parking brake on.  There’s a Philip Guston quote.  To paraphrase it, he says, “When you go into studio your head is filled with voices, and it’s your heroes, and it’s the old guard, and it’s your teachers, and it’s your peers.  And you start working and one by one, the critics leave, the artists leave, the teachers leave, and if you’re lucky, your own voice leaves too, and you’re just working.”  When one of my pieces gets burdened with too many voices, it is probably time to start another piece. You’re hoping to make, and not judge, and either you’ve maintained your subject, or else you’ve lost it and gone somewhere else.  There was a time when I liked having many ideas at play. Now I want each piece to be as clear as possible. One thing is enough.  I don’t want too many ideas in one thing – that’s like putting spaghetti on top of pizza.
In the end, the notion of a single subject that is formed by countless decisions is a beautiful contradiction.

JS: I agree – I’m more interested in painting that has one clear statement.  Although in our post-modernist world, people seem to accept and like a multiplicity of referents within one painting.  But, I do find your work has a duality – in that there’s a meeting point of geometric abstraction, with a playful, funky, hand-made element. Is this something you think about? 

MP: It took me a while to recognize humor in my work.  Now I feel like it is totally important. 
I’m interested in working with these things that are dumb fundamental components of visual language – the square, the triangle, the octagon, the stuff that is in everyone’s kitchen sink, the stuff that everyone knows.  If you work with simple components, and they all work together to transcend their parts— that’s the magic of painting.
But there is a weird dichotomy.  Geometric abstraction can feel exclusive, capital A art, threatening or intimidating to people.  The thing about Mondrian that’s amazing is that your first glance is like, what the fuck!  It’s grids, and it’s hard-edged, and it’s like a fence keeping me out - there’s nothing I can hold on to.  But those paintings are the total proof that there is no way to paint nature out of painting.  He translates experience through a chosen set of tools – primary colors, black, white, either X or Y.  And somehow they are incredibly personal and incredibly felt.  He is really disciplined. He’s such a believer!  He took those five things and he was so damn determined that he could say anything with them. 

Matt Phillips, Untitled, 2012

JS: I know you are interested in Howard Hodgkin.  Is this what you admire about his work?

MP: Yes. Hodgkin has taken on this great painting problem: how to use a distanced visual language of marks, dots, lines, maybe an arc, maybe a shape, to become a specific space, light, time of day and a specific feeling.  He uses a limited set of simple moves to talk about really personal, loaded situations. He evokes a moment, he gives it a size, a color, and a surface, and then he sets it, like how you set a diamond in a ring.  He sets it within the painted border, like the threshold that you have to cross through, to witness the transformation. 

JS: Can you address this imperfect element, the presence of the hand in your work?

MP: I rarely tape off an edge.  I’m interested in feeling my way across a form, even if it is a flat shape. I was affected by seeing the quilts of Gee’s Bend. Those quilts share many familiar ideas with geometric abstraction.   But when pinned up on the wall—they move, flop, and sag.  As objects encountering gravity, they behave in a really familiar and knowable way.  Seeing those quilts really excited me – seeing the image being impacted by its own weight, gravity acting on and impacting the image.  So I used to tack string on the wall or even in the painting to describe how gravity altered rigid geometry.  It was about weight, within invented abstract language.  It is something that grounds the painting–the sagging, drooping, fish-eye, in a painting.

JS: That meeting-point of the hard edge and the DIY element seems to make your work very much of this moment.  Is that something you’re thinking about?

MP.  I think almost anything you name right now is happening in contemporary art. There’s something exciting about that–the freedom.  I am really trying to trust that permission.  We can point to artists like Picasso or Richter or Martin Kippenberger, and how they embody freedom; they don’t take a stand; they are comfortable with plurality.  Sometimes I worry there is a lot of variation, that I’m too impressionable, that my studio is like a group show.  But, I’ve started to think that that’s awesome!  I love that every painting has its own conclusion, its own logic.  I’m trying to trust that I will corral myself when I need to.  Bruce Springsteen says, “If you can bear it, do two things that are totally different.  At the same time.”  I think it’s true.  If you can bear it, it is great to be pulling yourself in different directions.  It creates a dilemma to work through, a question to answer, a reason to keep going, something to ask of your work. 

JS: Beyond this contradiction that I’ve defined within your work, are you literally working on multiple paintings at the same time in your studio?

MP: Yes.  I used to do one or two at the same time, when I was working on larger-scale paintings, but I’ve gotten more interested in seeing a range of my ideas, and hearing the conversation between the paintings, and seeing how they inform each other.

JS: How many paintings are you working on at once?

MP: Right now I probably have a dozen paintings going.  Some sit, but they’re on the wall in the studio, and I would say I’m constantly moving them around.  Within a long day’s work, I’ll probably work on two or three paintings, but I’ll move everything in the studio at least once.  I’ll shuffle the deck. 

JS: Interesting. Why do you do that?
MP: It helps me see them better.  We only have so many moves.  By putting two paintings up beside each other, there is a third thing that happens.

JS: Hearing about the development of your work makes me want to know more about the genesis of it.  Did you draw as a kid?

MP: My visual culture growing up in Southwest Virginia was very much about music. My culture was not going to museums looking at pictures. It was rock n’ roll, LP covers, posters. I went to Spencer’s Gifts for my visual culture, or my dad’s records.  I was interested in psychedelic music imagery.  I was into some bands more for the art of their records than their music. Like Iron Maiden – they are great and everything, but their posters were amazing–dark and menacing and crazy.

JS: Was your interest in music part of your connection to the painter Gideon Bok?

MP: It is a big part of our friendship.  It was a really wonderful coincidence that Gideon was my teacher. Art definitely felt like an intimidating thing to me - foreign and new.  I didn’t take many art classes in high school, but I definitely could talk about Led Zeppelin, and David Bowie, and the Beatles.  And I played music growing up. I played music through college and then I stopped. I played the bass.  My last band in college – it was called The Creams.   We did Sade covers, and Prince covers, and we wrote original music, basically about being like intergalactic space pimps. 
Gideon was great in his belief that painting could contain any idea.  And musical ideas were really familiar to me.  So we could speak about those ideas in relation to music and it would make perfect sense.  It would really be illuminating in terms of what was happening in the painting. 

JS: Can you give me a specific example of what musical ideas you talked about in painting?

MP: Gideon will kill me for telling you this! But, I remember we were talking about Annunciation paintings.  And how typically you have two parallel worlds – the Mary side, and the Gabriel side, and most often there is a diagonal that traverses the two, either through a ray of light or some kind of compositional device that ruptures those two parallel fields.  So it’s like a visual bridge, between the two verses.  He played something like the Brooklyn Funk Essentials.  It was this song with two different movements, and one piercing saxophone note that went on forever, which the song pivoted around.  And we talked about that as the equivalent of the diagonal. It really stuck with me.  It made perfect sense.

Matt Phillips, Untitled, 2012

JS: What are some of the aesthetic relationships between music and painting you are thinking about right now?

MP: I’ve been listening to the Jesus and Mary Chain. A lot.  I feel a real affinity to that music.  If you were just to play those songs straight, it would sound like 60s era Phil Spector pop.  It would sound like The Shangri-Las, or The Ronettes, or The Crystals.  The structure, the melody, is totally familiar, but then they take it and distort it and feedback, and they sort of collapse the song onto itself sonically.  They become these drones.  They have a singularity about them.  You don’t feel the melody driving the music. You are not as aware of temporality, like in normal songs, where you feel the shifts.  It feels more static.  I like that they are using these really early pop standard structures, to make these totally rocking, psychedelic heavy songs.  It relates to this issue of using simple, fundamental components of painting to have wild, unexpected results. 

JS: How long do you generally work on a painting?

MP: It’s very rare that I’ll make a painting in one shot.  I work on a painting anywhere between a month and a year. I think it is important to let paintings sit, to look, get used to them, and see if they still interest me.  But I’ve definitely been painting faster at this new scale.  Over the course of the last year, when I was commuting between Massachusetts and New York, I made a series of paintings on paper, and I would carry them back and forth in the car, and work on them in my office, and my bedroom, and my studio.  It was a new way of working, and allowed me to be more comfortable leaving paintings open.  My friend Andy Ness talks about showing something in the process of becoming.  I became interested in there being any number of ways you could leave a painting.

JS: Really, so there are different ways you consider a painting finished?

MP: I feel like you want every painting to come to a different conclusion.  A conclusion different from the one before it. 

JS: Do you ever abandon paintings?

MP: I really try not to abandon paintings.  There’s a quality -- there’s something that you have to crack open or solve.  Or push through, to get through to the subject of a painting.  So rather than abandon it, you have to let it act on you. Whether you like it or not is a separate issue, a separate matter.  Some paintings just need to be bad. It is important. I tell my students that all the time.  They get very offended.  They don’t know that most paintings are bad.  It’s hard to make a good painting.  So you have to be very comfortable with not making good paintings.  It feels like part of your job, otherwise it’s too much to bear. 

JS: Hmm. Well, when I hear you say bad painting, I also hear you say good painting! I think of that playful element in your work.  That’s the play–the bad painting part.

MP: Well, for me it is very serious business, but anyone who is pushing around colored dirt, and making huge claims, needs to check himself a little bit. 

Matt Phillips, Untitled, 2012, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches

JS: Can you talk more about your technical process?  I know you have developed some very specific ways of working, and working off of your works on paper.

MP:  I have started to repaint some of the works on paper, which fuse collage and drawing and painting, from observation. So they are like still-life paintings, of these low relief sculptures.  I am repainting the image as an object. When you find something, it is worth revisiting. Repainting is a way to memorialize the discovery.  I’m trying to keep my ideas visual and find a way to keep making thoughts and ideas become a picture.

JS: Do you mean how to keep your ideas visual as opposed to just being ideas? That reminds me of that conversation we had in the past about Susan Sontag.

MP: Yes, totally.  Susan Sontag is all about the idea that the experience of art should be untamed, and wild, and not curbed by interpretation, and rationalizing.  That it should be experienced in the flesh, with an open heart, and open eyes. 

Matt and I were photographed by Andrea Bergart at d.b.a. Thanks!


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