Richard Phillips and the Tricky Nature of Artist-Viewer Transactions
It's Saturday morning just before 11:30 a.m. and the staff at the Dallas Contemporary is adjusting microphones and setting up chairs for its Chit Chat with Richard Phillips. I dusted off my hangover from Friday night's champagne-laced gallery hopping, because I felt I owed it to Phillips to show up. At the opening I'd complained, perhaps too loudly, about his over sized paintings of celebrity photographs that, to me, reek of vulgar spectacle and misogyny. What I gathered at the talk was deep insight into my relationship with the living context of contemporary art.
Last weekend an exhibition of paintings, with subject matter not dissimilar from the Phillips paintings, opened in a presidential library. You might remember my review of former President George W. Bush's art exhibition, for which I wrote a vaguely controversial headline labeling it an unreal art exhibition. I was making very large judgments on the definition of art and the value of intention - the opposite of what I experienced in Phillips' work.
The two exhibits are inextricably linked by the portrait of Dubya that sits at the front of the gallery, mounted next to a painting that seems to be spewing genital spray at his tight-lipped smile. They are technical opposites: Phillips is a master of his craft and overblown intention; Bush is charmingly bereft of spectacle, but lacks statement. Women in Phillips' paintings masturbate with important art magazines on canvas; Women in Bush's paintings run countries off canvas. Is the canvas the great equalizer or is it just a pretense of the art world? In other words, is the medium more than a conduit for the "art" itself, which is a muddied combination of the idea, the artist's notoriety and the technical execution?
If you wandered the halls of the Dallas Art Fair over the weekend, you might've seen Francis Bacon paintings down the hall from a mixed media piece starring Big Tex. For a weekend, they shared a white walled context, but will doubtfully share a page in the annals of history. This distinction has much to do with movements in art history and an artist's earned reputation, but it also has to do with perceived value and the prerogative of the audience, collector and critic.
Art Fairs, for example, are acts of commerce. After the weekend, no matter how impressive Dallas appeared with endless parties and insightful conversations the crux of the weekend for the gallerists and to the collectors was purchases made. Introducing young professional day to the fair is a wonderful way to put art in front of new eyeballs, but created a skewed ratio of attendees to buyers. At the Fair, a relative value is placed on the quality of the audience. But on some level all art is a transaction.
I once mentioned to an artist that I saw the insularity of the art community as a negative, to which he replied that he saw it as honest engagement. The people who attend art shows out of genuine curiosity are who the art world attracts, making it a more thoughtful realm.
So I'm standing in front of a series of sculpture at Oliver Francis Gallery on Friday night when a stranger asks me for an honest opinion about the artwork. What kind of relative value do the ceramic mugs we're staring at have for me? And, I pause, pointing to the one I most enjoy, for its upturned nose and leering jackolantern eyes. He chooses an entirely different piece and I understand in that moment that this exchange, the varied degrees of taste, validates artistic variations. Perhaps, one of the many things I was left with after an art-fueled weekend was the importance of presence. First for the creation of the piece and then the viewing of art.
Ultimately, Saturday morning Phillips refused overt explanations of his chosen subject matter, which ranges from a TMZ-esque Justin Timberlake portrait to hyper-sexualized women. He encourages the uneasy relationship his viewers have with its context and meaning. And that relationship is what is worth questioning. Perhaps what his art said to me about misogyny and spectacle says as much about the onlooker as it does about the art. Perhaps, even if I don't find Bush's folk art painting interesting as paintings on a canvas, they carry artistic value as a dialogue between viewer, painting and painter.
Understanding the provocative nature of the art show you are walking into, or the financial endeavor of an art fair, or the message-oriented presidential library is as important as understanding the personal biases you bring with you. The Dallas arts scene carries relative value and meaning for each resident that proves malleable as life goes on and one performance, exhibition, or fair leads to new dialogue.