Poor Richard Phillips. When Marcel Duchamp first dragged that toilet into the gallery, no one knew it was art. Now, 100 years later, we don’t recognize Phillips’s photorealist paintings of female celebrities as the avant-garde trailblazers they really are! This is only part of the sob story Phillips weaves for Huffington Post writer Michael Hogan, who dutifully reports on the artist's show at Gagosian on W. 24th Street (through Oct 20) as though he’s never questioned a press release before. Hogan paraphrases a few of Phillips’s thoughts on why his art has its critics: "It doesn't fit with [art connoisseurs’] image of themselves as soldiers in the noble war against vulgarity and dumbed-down main-stream culture."
Phillips’s antidote to this problem (if that’s even what this is supposed to be) conveniently matches the Huffington Post’s interest in the wisdom of crowds. Phillips used the media’s most republished screenshots of his films featuring Lindsay Lohan and former porn star Sasha Grey to determine what paintings he’d make. Since this maps neatly onto the celebrityhood of his subjects, who are photographed constantly by the media, there’s apparently some conceptual content to the work.
Of course, anyone could make that connection, so I’m not particularly sold on its intellectual merit. Phillips also tells us that the transfer of digital images to paint is significant because it makes us more aware of our physical selves. Basically, that he painted this with his bare hands is important because we like our phones a lot.
There are no redeeming qualities to this show. Nothing happens in the Phillips videos screening in two of the four galleries. In one, Lohan sunbathes on the beach. Then, when it gets dark, she looks scared. This is accompanied by some boilerplate aural art-gloom and the backwards playback of some waves. In another, we watch Sasha Grey walk around. That’s the whole movie.
After these, we’re treated to rigid paint handling and gratuitous profile shots of these women, each drawn from the videos. It looks like it's just as much about producing work for collectors as it is about painting. After all, handmade works derived from films sell much better than photographic stills; collectors desire the touch of the artist’s hand.
And collectors clearly don’t always have the ability to distinguish the avant garde from the hacks. Even a brief look at other well-known artists painting celebrities shows us Phillips hasn’t got much painting chops. Luc Tuymans's eerie portrait of Condoleezza Rice or Lucian Freud’s painting of a bloated Queen Elizabeth work because the paintings themselves vibrate in conjunction with what we know about the subjects. That never happens here. In fact, from my point of view, the only virtuosity we’ve seen Phillips demonstrate is his ability to laud work that’s unworthy. I didn’t think I’d have anything to say about this show—it’s completely vacuous—but Phillips proved me wrong.
Image First Point, 2012 By Richard Phillips, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery