David Phillips Paints with the Spirit of the Contemporary American West

by Paul Weiner

David Phillips is a painter from Tulsa, Oklahoma who is now working in Los Angeles, California. He has shown his work at a wide variety of venues including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Carnegie Hall, and the Downtown Art Center of Los Angeles. Phillips has been featured on CBS News and in the Los Angeles Times. His paintings can also be found on his website.

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Paul Weiner:
Tell us a little about the way you started painting both physically and conceptually.

David Phillips:
I have the first painting I ever made framed inside my house. The painting is an abstract portrait painted in 1983. I was four years old. My grandmother was an oil painter in Oklahoma. She painted flowers, landscapes, and still life. She kept a studio inside her house. When my two younger brothers and I would visit, we would inevitably get into trouble. The adults would separate us into different rooms. I was always confined to the studio. I still remember the smell, the rags, the brushes. I was hooked.

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Paul Weiner:
How did your habit of leaving your artwork places for others to find and take home come about?

David Phillips:
The act of leaving certain pieces of art around Los Angeles has manifested multiples times throughout my career. At first, my studio was simply too packed to hold any more materials. My studio is by the beach. I decided to take all the pages from my sketchbook and put them inside bottles as a take on a message in a bottle. The act of leaving art around town gained traction and became popular in my community. The initial project propagated larger works such as found sculptures and public installations. As of now, I think such public works ran their course, and I no longer do such things.

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Paul Weiner:
Describe your transition from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Venice, California. How was your artwork altered by the move?

David Phillips:
I believe a professional artist must live in a large city. You have to be around the galleries and museums you wish to show. You have to be next to a large market. You have to be directly in the vice grip of struggle. You have to be completely absorbed by the frenetic. Now, I am referring to the artist at the beginning of his career. I am referring to the artist who wants to be collected on a grand scale and be inside major museums, the artist who wants a permanent stamp inside art history. Look at the major contemporary artists post-WWII: Pollock, Guston, Still, Twombly, De Kooning, Rauschenberg, Schnabel, Ruscha, Bacon. The list is endless.

I love Oklahoma. I painted there for years. When I painted in Oklahoma, I painted wildlife. The images I made were more photo recreation or realism. I practiced religiously. I honed my technique. I used oil paints as per their intention, but the paintings fell flat. I had no understanding of the psychological impact of color. I didn’t understand automatism or experimentation. Moving to Los Angeles opened up Pandora’s Box for me artistically. Of course contributing factors such as age, life experience, and maturity come into play. Los Angeles allowed me to live by my terms and become my true self. I completely submersed myself into the life of an artist, a real artist constantly experimenting, always progressing. I completely gainsay the pictorial, the symbolic, the illustrative, and the ever-feared ‘decorative’. I deny the theory that painting has been completely deconstructed. I deny that the contemporary image cannot progress. A new art can still be made. I will die trying to make it.

Kung Fu

Paul Weiner:
Thinking about art markets today, how happy are you with your time around Los Angeles? Would you choose Los Angeles over New York City?

David Phillips:
Whew. Well, that is a question I’d prefer to answer over lots of beer and whiskey. I think a majority of the art in Los Angeles is horrendous. A very large percentage of the artists are “street artists” or have an urban/hip hop vibe that spotlights the twerps making it rather than the actual work. I suppose this is a popular trend in art right now regardless of region, but it is especially prevalent in Los Angeles. The most important lesson to learn by that is to just stick to your vision. Simply put, do not worry for one second what other emerging ‘artists’ are doing. Study your influences relentlessly, and try to stick to your singular vision as an artist. Hone your craft to master prestige. One good thing about having a shitty trend like “street art” being popular is that means there are people with disposable income who are willing to buy. Therefore, it may be slightly easier to sell a picture that was handmade with proper technique. I am continually blown away at the amount of artists in Los Angeles who do not make their own canvas or material. It’s mind blowing. They do not realize that a picture painted on a pre-made, store bought canvas is complete bullshit. If the canvas is pre-made, then the end resulting painting is a collaboration between the artist and the art store. Period. The piece of art’s bio should include “Collaboration Between _____(artist) and Blick Art Supplies” or “Collaboration Between _____(artist) and Hobby Lobby”. They will learn very quickly when they try to get a piece in a respectable museum. I’ve also noticed a majority of artists in Los Angeles do not mix their own colors. They typically paint straight out of the tube.

I love Los Angeles. I love the weather (who wouldn’t?), the beaches, the women, fuck, everything about it. It’s the greatest city in the world in my opinion. The people ruin it, but they can’t take away the great weather and cool vibe. I definitely believe things happen quicker in New York, of course. New York artists also have the luxury of history. When Peggy Guggenheim decided to leave Paris and bring the surrealists to New York, that was it, done and done. The new art world epicenter became New York. Los Angeles will always be on the coattails of that fact. However, that does not mean a new art cannot be made here or important artists won’t prevail. We have numerous examples of very important artists here: Baldessari, Larry Bell, Peter Lodato, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, James Turrell, etc. From a market standpoint, LA has the advantage of population. We have almost 2 million more people than New York City.

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Paul Weiner:
Working seriously in abstraction today can be difficult since the market is so saturated, and so many painters are focused on making abstract paintings purely as commercial objects to be sold. How do you set yourself apart from the crowd of abstract expressionists?

David Phillips:
Well if any artist sets out to create work only to sell,good luck. Don’t get me wrong. An artist obviously needs money just like anybody else needs money. The separating factor is that the need to create the art, the drive, has to be so strong that it supersedes money. Thus, I don’t know how much I believe artists are created. Personally, I think they are born. If the need or will to create is that strong, it means it has been practiced since, well, almost birth. Therefore, once the artists reaches an age of independence or adulthood, the work should be strong enough to warrant sales. Yes, this may alienate the weekend painter or hobbyist, but it draws a very distinct line in the sand between a person who has created or painted his whole life versus a person who wishes he could paint to make money and leave his job. Therefore, I set myself apart in a very major way by being a full-time artist with a working studio. Now, to make it even more niche, I am not just an abstract expressionists. I make abstract paintings, but I also paint realism and portraits, and I make films, music videos, collage pieces, and sculpture. There is an overlaying style or look that I suppose would be recognizable to some, and that is what it is. Different people have called it different things such as avant garde, conceptual, or abstract expressionism. At the end of the day, I just execute whatever idea or build whatever it is I want to accomplish. After that, it’s pretty much out of my hands.

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Paul Weiner:
Museums and collectors have long been fascinated by artists of the American West. Despite differences in style from many of the popular realist Western artists, do you feel that you are the contemporary manifestation of a Western painter?

David Phillips:
I am the contemporary American West.

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Paul Weiner:
Do you feel as if artists are properly valued in American society?

David Phillips:
I do feel that artists are properly valued in America. The problem is that it is the wrong artists. You have to be very careful with art because it is a career where hard work might not pay off. The American public has mistaken gimmick for talent. A majority of today’s most celebrated living artists have achieved success through gimmick rather than practice, study, or hard work. You have a guy who screen prints a Ronald McDonald all over town, then you have another guy who picks Count Dracula. This is not art. This is gimmick. Don’t get me wrong. The allure of fame, consistent art sales, and major shows is enough to attract any artist. Now, imagine if De Kooning were alive today and saw that. He was an immigrant who had to sneak his way into the United States on his 13th try. Then he lived through a depression as an artist! Then he navigated his way through the gallery scene with an academic education equivalent of the eighth grade. Imagine he sees the successful or selling artists today. He would pass out, either from laughter or rage. I do feel America has the propensity to properly value an artist. It is simply misguided. It will change over time, just as most fads do.

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Paul Weiner:
You’ve spoken about your perception of artists who use colors straight from the tube and pre-made canvas as making inferior work. Some artists and critics might critique these tools as being the impact of a quasi-capitalist art market where corporations create the tools artists use and corporate collections (e.g. Deutsche Bank, Progressive, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase) buy the resulting art. To what extent do you find the use of pre-made materials an ethical dilemma versus an aesthetic one?

David Phillips:
Well, of course there is a huge, huge beauty in a fresh tube of cadmium red, and of course there is nothing wrong with using that red straight out of the tube as long as the artist’s intentional vision justifies the usage. I suppose I was referring to the artists simply making art to sell. I do stand by the thesis that artists should create art as handmade as possible. This gives the artist control over shape, size, coarseness, etc, which, in turn, executes the artist’s vision more precisely. I remember watching the “Who The Fuck is Jackson Pollock?” documentary years ago. I remember by just watching the movie, which included many scholars, and thinking, “How the fuck do they not know that this is not his painting?” I could tell through a goddamn television screen. The pink in the painting was not his pink. The paint used was not enamel or anything close to what he used. The canvas wasn’t built by him. Look at the edges. The answer was in the materials, not the style.

Boogie

Paul Weiner:
Is your goal in painting to create artwork that clearly communicates your perception or is it to evoke a sublime reaction to yourself and your viewers?

David Phillips:
I don’t know how much of a goal I have with any painting. I try not to think about any particular person or client. This would certainly influence the outcome, and it gets back to the art versus commerce debate. I suppose the only goal would be to capture the feeling or essence of any particular object I am painting. I do not paint the apple. I paint what the apple taste like. I paint what would happen if the apple was pissed off or hurt. Of course, any painter would love to evoke a sublime reaction to a viewer. That is probably the best result!

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Paul Weiner:
Many abstract artists have struggled with creating titles, leading some to go so far as to use dates or numerical systems as titles. How do you go about titling a painting and how do you feel about the practice of artists who sign their paintings?

David Phillips:
When you are creating paintings at a very fast rate or high capacity, inevitably you run out of titles. Also, using dates or “Untitled” allows viewers to have their own relationships and create their own stories to a piece. Personally, I enjoy titling each piece, and I feel it is as important to the painting as the materials or subject. I totally get that not all artists create this way. I use the title like poetry. The intention is to only enhance the piece, which would strike all sorts of debate like “Why does the piece need enhancing?” A very simple answer to that would be that it is fun. I constantly write while I work, Sometimes just phrases, sometimes short stories, sometimes just word associations. I’ve found this helps with the frequency of ideas.

I typically do not sign my pieces on the front. My only rule for that is if it adds to the picture, I will sign it. However, a majority of the time, a signature would simply intrude on the composition I just spent 2 weeks or a month making. Therefore, I would never compromise the face of a picture.


Please view David Phillips’s work on his website and “like” Critique Collective on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/critiquecollective.

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