Hellion Magazine - Richard Phillips: The Power Of An Image

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(Photography By Brittany Waterson)

(© Richard Phillips. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever)


Richard Phillips: The Power Of An Image

By Brittany Waterson

October 12th 2012


Countless floors atop the architectural wonder that is the Starrett-Lehigh building, houses the lofted painting studio of Richard Phillips. The studio, nearly empty save for the assortment of heavily used tubes of paint and a giant size photo of Lindsay Lohan, leads the eye to a stunning wall-to-wall view overlooking Midtown and the Hudson River. Richard and I sit at a metal table near the windows where a combination of the studio light and the glow from the New York buildings illuminates the room. His works are currently on display in an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery until October 20th, 2012. The show features three short films and large scale paintings of actress Lindsay Lohan, model Adriana Lima, and adult film star Sasha Grey.

I ask if we can start with First Point (2011), his surf noir film starring Lindsay Lohan, and how it came about. He begins with telling me how his friend Neville Wakefield, asked him to submit one or two films for “Commercial Break,” a program for the Venice Biennale in summer 2010. “But then after saying yes I realized that I had not made any films before –of any sort, not even on my iPhone,” he confesses and begins to explain that he had been a judge in a surf film festival. And it was there that he met his co-director Taylor Steele, who has made over two dozen surf films and is widely known in the genre.  

The collaborative effort was then born when Phillips asked Steele to work with him on a few short films (Lindsay (2010) and Sasha (2010)). For the third film Phillips recalls, “When we had the opportunity again to work with Lindsay on First Point it was kind of crazy not to take advantage of the fact that I was working with the best surf filmmaker in the world.” After the concept was created, the decision to steer the subject of the second film towards surfing, as a surf noir, was made.

The two films starring Lindsay share similar concepts and themes, lending themselves to the idea First Point is a continuation of the film Lindsay. Phillips says in First Point  “[Lindsay] is reacting to the ocean as a part of it, she’s in it surfing . . . as you progress, the exterior world encroaches and you see the paparazzi and other people surfing and it expands the language of the first film.” The intention of a relation between the two films is not meant to be literal, though Phillips recognizes the common threads.

Referring back to the translation of the film into paintings, I wonder how they found their way to the internet. “Much of what appeared online and on blogs, any type of reference to the films, were done as screen grabs from the films,” he explains, “[the videos] are readily available on YouTube and have been seen by millions of people at this point, so people over time picked out their favorite stills.” The most popular images informed the paintings in the exhibition as they indicated the selling moments in the films.

With the images of the paintings flooding my memory, the apparent emotion and amount of self- awareness captured in the pieces create a powerful effect. The plots behind the films stemmed from storyboards created by Phillips and his creative team. He credits his inspiration for First Point to the Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman produced surf film Free and Easy and David Lynch’s 90s LA noir vehicle, Lost Highway. The latter film, “was really a focal point of the night sequences,” and the shot list is, “an attempt to bring in the flavor of each [film] together.” Enthused, he definitely sees more video work in his future, which is the declaration I was hoping to hear.

The experience of viewing the films at the Gagosian is highly calculated. I recount my thoughts on the theater design to Phillips, mentioning how I felt overwhelmed by my own proximity to the screen. “When you sit on the seats at the gallery we scale the film so that it was just at the maximum of your peripheral,” he admits. The aim of showing the audience the largest possible image is on purpose. The IMAX-like environment creates a sensory overload for the viewer where they are confronted by large-scale images and the blaring of a melodic, yet haunting soundtrack. The volume of the films is again, intentional. Phillips mentions how the sound “actually permeates the gallery when you’re looking at the paintings which is also something that is a coincidental benefit.” He also adds that the observer’s experience is heightened because the soundtrack is able to flood the open space of the gallery. The score heard throughout the gallery is a muted version allowing for a more inspired interpretation of the pieces. The viewer can distance the paintings from the sound, unlike the film, or they can choose to allow the music shape their thoughts.

I confess to Phillips that the score from First Point actually frightened me. He is not surprised and tells me about working with the composer Thomas Bangalter, of Daft Punk. Bangalter’s working process is a strict one. Phillips narrates the story of how he was set up to take a phone call in which he was, “to discuss the concept of the film and then eventually provide a single image to him, but no more. And in terms of discussion, I was to speak purely in conceptual terms and not in literal terms.” Bangalter also wanted to know the length of the film and at what point was the “arc of the experience of the film.” With the required information in tact, Bangalter began working on the score. Phillips recalls the moment when it finally came back to him, scrambling to find a silent version of the film on his desktop and hitting the play button. “The way that the music syncs with the images that happened in real time at that moment is what you’re seeing, the first time. It gave me chills from head to toe.”   

It is only fitting that such a grandiose score blends with the intense proximity of the viewer to the film and of course the large scale paintings. Curious about the nature of the size of his works, I wonder where the desire began. He acknowledges that his paintings, since his first show, have always been large. “Scale has always been a part of my work.” From his early painting days to the current show at the Gagosian, the size of his works only seem to be increasing.  “It just so happens that these paintings, because they are from the image still of the films, they’ve taken on a new format, which is a more cinematic format.” And because the images are stills, the experience of viewing the film is recreated through the scale of his paintings.

Phillips’s talent is undeniable and his ability to make his work look like photographs is incredible. In some instances, the fact that the works are oil paintings is almost lost due to the enormous size and brilliant clarity of the subject matter. The exhibition features sizable portraits of Lindsay, Sasha and Adriana, but Phillips looks beyond the notion of celebrity and fame. “It’s more than celebrity, they’re actually in each case very successful producers of images that have a great deal of power,” he explains.  He mirrors the overwhelming effect of their presence in the media through the scale of his work.

The paintings and films of the three women embody the essence of Phillips’s interest and commonly used themes. With Lindsay, he explores the verification of our corporal state and self-awareness in Malibu. He taps into the San Fernando Valley and Mulholland Drive scene with Sasha, in the architectural marvel of John Lautner’s Chemosphere. He works with dimensionality and posing in Adriana’s pieces, setting her against iconic Brazilian landmarks printed on vinyl backdrops. The exhibition’s cohesive element is the underlying force within the show.   

After the exhibition ends October 20th, 2012, the paintings will disperse and First Point will make its way to possibly two different film festivals. And for Phillips, aside from working in the studio he will be honored at Two x Two, a live auction that benefits amfAR and the Dallas Museum of Art, by which he is very humbled. He also plans on attending Art Basel in Miami this December. Regardless of what he does, Richard Phillips has made a name for himself in painting and film work that will continue to challenge viewers creatively, just as he challenges himself.