A conversation about art at the intersection of canvas and racetrack. Richard Phillips sits at the pinnacle of commercial art fame. In his studio overlooking New York City we are surrounded by paintings of hyper-realistic, beautiful women, bold pop aesthetics and what the artist’s loudest critics decry as crass depictions of the emptiness of American culture.
Yet Phillips is a man with a vibrantly entrepreneurial spirit, widely known for his carefully chosen, high profile collaborations and glossy – often eerie – images. For Phillips, a painting at its best emphasizes corporeal experience. The artist’s approach to life, as he explained during our conversation, is to push himself beyond his comfort zone and explore the boundaries of expression.
Among floor-to-ceiling paintings of women in repose, Phillips finds inspiration both from his earlier work and the constantly-changing cultural landscape around him. Yet more than once, Phillips has been the subject of criticism from fellow contemporary artists for using nudity, sponsorships and celebrities as means to sell his paintings.
In fact these views on celebrity and media are exactly what Phillips seeks to both exemplify and challenge in his work. His works are communicative and provocative, playing with the borders of eroticism and luxury, speed and culture regardless of medium.
During our visit to his studio in Chelsea and the Heinlein Racing Development Garage in New Jersey, we discussed how Phillips sees the connections between his practice, passions and life.
Interested in questioning the role of painting and the representation of reality through his work, discourses surrounding advertising, celebrity culture, pornography, sexuality, identity, and idealism enter his glossy and hyper-realistic paintings while mirroring American tabloid culture.
Not limiting himself to one medium, Phillips continuously diversifies his practice through film and video, photography and sculpture, while maintaining an overarching focus on beauty, intimacy, precision.
We followed Phillips to a garage in New Jersey, where he is concentrating on a so called “kinetic sculpture”, which takes the form of a Porsche Cayman RSR. As part of his creative process, the artist is striving to build the perfect car.
After a season of testing, Phillips is now looking to legitimize the performance values of the work. For the sculpture to be completed, its functionality must match its aesthetic. Together with New Jersey-based specialists Heinlein Racing Development, he’s moving closer to this balanced perfection.
Do you feel like you’re stepping into your studio when you go into the motorsport shop?
Yeah, I do – but it’s more about the object. It’s this inert thing that is really beautiful, but when it gets turned on it’s so loud and so frightening. You can’t help it, you feel the energy. It’s such an intense feeling, you can’t even imagine!
Bridging the gap between painting as artistic practice and cars as a medium is not something one typically sees during an artist’s career. What’s your take on the connection between these mediums?
Motorsport is a type of portraiture with a certain passion and intent; it is articulated very precisely, not only in its aesthetic form but also its emotional heart. I think when one turns a car on, the thing comes alive and you can hear that it’s not like a normal object. The end result is that the paintings have an emphasis on our corporeal situation: ourselves and our bodies in front of paintings.
The real experience of paintings is the sense of being present with them, and it’s the same thing with a car. You can photograph or film it and it looks pretty incredible, but the real sense of it, that sense of realism, or reality or hyperreality is the full expression of it in our corporeal state. And so that becomes, at least on a basic level, a point of connection between all the varied forms.
Because what we are really talking about is form and expression within form. Painting is the same thing; painting is absorbed sensitivity.
Is this interest in cars new for you?
I’ve always kind of been interested in them. When my friend Neville Wakefield took me for a ride in his 1991 Porsche 964 C2 Turbo, I couldn’t believe the power and speed. We pulled over to the side of the highway and he said, “Okay now you try it.” I got into the driver’s seat and just mashed the throttle and we took off at such an unbelievably high speed.
Later on, I identified the Cayman as the car most suited to my abilities and something that I could learn with, but I wanted to build it as an ultimate form. The Cayman as a car is a brilliant design by Porsche, but they can’t have it surpass the performance value of the 911, which is their marquee brand. I decided to build one that would compete directly with their brand by using all of the best components from the 911 and putting them into a Cayman. I did this extra thing, turning it into kind of an RSR version or a racing version with a super wide body that was very similar to the actual RSR at the shop.
The early white turbo and RSR were two of the biggest inspirations that went into creating this kinetic sculpture, this kind of hybridized form of the Cayman RSR, which is not sanctioned by Porsche. It started out as a Porsche Cayman S. When I began working with Heinlein Racing Development, the car had been built up but there was a gap between where it was aesthetically and where it needed to be in terms of its performance and engineering.
From a technical standpoint, how do you integrate cars into your work?
I’ve actually never talked about this in an interview, but my approach to art making and motorsport is that it’s important to understand the full dimensions of what you are doing, because otherwise you won’t be able to communicate with the engineers who make it possible.
It seems as though with your brand collaborations, you are pushing towards something bigger. Do you think you move beyond contemporary boundaries in art?
I think it’s one thing to be a painter, but I actually don’t necessarily think that painting is always art, even if it looks like art. And that’s important, it’s really a form that has no guarantees. There is no inherent guarantee that art is being made. No matter how much you commit to it and how serious you get, it could just be a delusion. I know that’s kind of a fearsome thing to take on. In overall terms, you could convince yourself that art is what you’re making, but it might not be true, because there are no guarantees that it is art.
That seems quite cynical. How do you move forward with your own work?
Well, you have to really put everything to a stress test and see what the limits are and where there’s potential. That’s on a conceptual level as well as a physical level. And you have to try to gain objectivity, to look at it critically, to see what it’s actually doing as art, to see if it is actually engaging in a discourse. If it just lies there and it’s flat decoration or whatever, that’s fine, it’s a commodity, you can sell it.
But whether there is a capacity to change cultural discourse and the relationship to creative expression, the demands of contemporary art, or art in general, that’s a tougher question that has to be addressed from day one. So, when I hear romantic stories of painters throwing themselves into their studios, l respect them for that because I have to do that myself. At the same time, it’s easy to get caught up and think that the act itself is valuable and it may not be.
It seems you really push for a creative space that’s not always comfortable. Do you do this intentionally?
Painting can be like a comfort zone, that zone of being on rails, where everything is cruising. And it’s at that point where there is a critical question being asked: are you willing to go back to the form and push it past the point of being comfortable? And are you able to handle that feeling in order to find the limit of expression, to find its capacity to communicate?
It’s really actually the opposite of doubt because ultimately you have to be confident in your abilities, in your capacities. If you ever watch in-car footage of an extremely skilled race driver, you will see them constantly teasing the car past the point of controllability.
What do you love about the rush of being in a car?
Racing as a sport is something that has been always been in my system and I have a real knack for it. It’s been in my DNA as long as I can possibly remember. If you were sitting beside me in the car, with the harness on, you would feel the pressure of the belts pushing into your shoulders and the force of your head going forward. It accelerates to the point where it throws you back to your seat so hard that you can’t even pry your head off seat, you’re just flying. You smell the rubber and you smell the brake dust and the fumes coming out of the car, and the heat – it’s so intensely hot that you have to wear a cool suit pumping ice water around your core – it’s a different way of feeling alive.
Where did you learn the confidence to push through during moments of doubt and acknowledge your license as an artist?
When I started out it was a pretty reductive scenario. I didn’t have huge aspirations per se. I was, however, really inspired by particular paintings I saw which seemed to be radical, which seemed to enliven the medium in a way that was completely unpredictable to me. I started painting because it seemed like I had been given my license to just go off the edge, completely go off with it, and at that point I serendipitously found a path. I hope that when people see the work, it alleviates a kind of critical faculty and allows experience to take hold.
Can you talk about your relationships to big brands and how those relationships impact your process? For example you seem to have a genuine connection to Montblanc.
Absolutely. In 2002, I was approached by Montblanc to do a commission for their art collection. I was in Hamburg at the time for my survey show at the Kunstverein. Everywhere I went, all throughout the city, were these big images of this grandmotherly-looking old guy, German political posters about the most bizarre thing. It was the head of the Green Party, Joschka Fischer. So, I said, “Well, that will be the portrait that I’ll do for Montblanc, wouldn’t it be great for Joschka Fischer to be the spokesperson for Montblanc on a political level?”
To me, it was an appropriate portrait, at that moment it was of the time. Painting Joschka Fischer was quite an interesting experience, very different from the kinds of paintings that I was doing at the time and I think it came out really well. It was my first real portrait that involved a corporate entity, which brings me right up to today.
Do you feel a synergy with Montblanc in terms of craftsmanship and design?
There is a seriousness to how implements are used in engineering and design: again this idea of taking them to their limits, zeroing things out, making them as best you can. I do that with my paintings. They are as vividly real as they can be, but there is a way that you have to get to them by not compromising on anything, which would be similar to Montblanc’s rigor.
Do you have a long term vision for your work?
No, it’s really immediate. Right now I’m working on these paintings for Dallas, and I’m about to work on my fourth film, which is entirely different in terms of how it’s being made, compared to the ones I’ve done before. In a way, it’s like figuring out a whole new method of working. I’m a person who wanted to be a musician or performer all along, or even an actor. I love that sense of being live in the moment but that’s not where my talent lies.