Issue 161, Spring 2002
A new series by Richard Phillips, destined for a May show at the White Cube in London, was inspired by the photos in Birds of Britain, a 1967 survey of London's most beautiful scene-makers—women whose hair tossing and pouts captured the enduring sex appeal of that decade.
Birds, the English nickname for females, recalls Antonioni’s 1966 movie Blow-up, in which David Hemmings plays a moody fashion photographer (“Even with beautiful girls—you look at them and that’s that … and I’m stuck with them all day long”) who apsires to make real art—i.e. pictures of poor people, which he sensitively shares with one of his editors in a restaurant. Phillips, on the other hand, has no qualms about blowing up the faces of pretty girls to a pop scale, bestowing a celebratory grandeur on the sometimes base (pornographic images) or simply banal (vintage fashion magazine advertisements) source material.
Unlike his shiny but obscure beauties, his men are all recognizable players from the worlds of politics and entertainment—George Bush, Rob Lowe, Michael Jackson (“I’m very specific about who the man gets to be”)—a contrast that recalls John Berger’s dictum that Men Act while Women Appear. Their skin often appears tarnished, and their features hinge on the grotesque; one expects to spot some thick, angry hairs poking through a patch of permatanned skin from an obsolete waxing. Phillips says he doesn’t see the men as ugly, but rather as objects of compassion—that they represent the “symbol of fallibility made human again.”
Unlike many of the young photorealists working today, who simply project or trace, Phillips uses found images only as a starting point. Using a good old-fashioned grid technique, he scales photographs to drawings and then paints from them. In the new images, Phillips uses a gold-leafing technique for the first time, accenting the teeth and eyes of his subjects with highly reflective glints of gilded aluminum leaf. The “dimensionless space of the gold-leaf emphasizes temporality,” Phillips says. “The original premise of the images [in Birds of Britain] was based on the ambition to reach one’s limit of beauty and chicness, and about unlimited stardom. And that necessarily is a delusional state. Time robs everyone of that, and chicness is never really graspable except in an image. If this were an experiment, then I’d consider that mental state the control and I’m testing my paintings against the delusion.”