I said yes to Redia at 01 when she emailed to ask if I’d interview the painter Brad Phillips, because I’d written about him before and I figured there would be any number of things we could talk about. One thing that draws me to his work is its contradictions. Phillips is a realist painter that, on a superficial viewing, seems to reinforce a series of stereotypes about the artist, particularly the male artist – a cliché I’d rather avoid. But on another level, his pictures, when viewed together, form fragments of a larger incoherent story and as such explore his own life autobiographically. But one gets the feeling in fact, that the paintings construct the story of an “artist’s life” more than depict anything truthfully. They are about depiction, not confession.
I thought I’d start by asking Phillips how his paintings relate to music. I was curious about this mostly because the Brad I know socially is as much about music as he is about painting. Yet the relationship does not seem very obvious when I view his work, except for his early portraits of “Goth” girls. We ended up talking about free jazz, Oscar Wilde, and why he has chosen to make realist paintings. At first, he was reticent to talk about music. He acquiesced a few days later. The interview was conducted via email.
Aaron Peck: You posted an Archie Shepp song with Jeanne Lee on vocals to Facebook today (“Sophisticated Lady”), which was serendipity, because the first question I wanted to ask you was about Shepp. A few years ago you introduced me to his album The Magic of Ju-ju. How did you start listening to Shepp?
Brad Phillips: When I was in art school I was quasi living with a guy named Yuri Didrichsons, who went on to be in a band called The Deadly Snakes, and a guy named Vasi Pollock, who had a big influence on me, and who I have no idea what happened to. We were really obsessed with music (as it was enhanced by drugs) and Vasi knew a lot of obscure jazz. Vasi turned me on to Archie Shepp, and the first album I heard of his was Blasé, which has that song on it you mention. I later saw him play live in Toronto. He’s incredible, I still listen to his albums when I’m painting. I know every piece of his note for note, which is sort of odd since they’re so almost note-irrelevant.
(Art’s Most Important 2008/Optimal Conception Posture 2012: Courtesy of MFA Gallery Vancouver and Louis B. James Gallery New York)
I have Blasé. I love that album. I actually got into that specific album because I’m a big fan of its vocalist Jeanne Lee, really one of the underrated jazz singers of the sixties, particularly her recordings with Ran Blake. You already answered a question I, in fact, was avoiding: whether or not you paint while listening to music. It’s interesting to me that you do, because so much of your work feels silent. If I didn’t know you, I doubt I would think about your work in terms of music. You’ve mentioned old friends related to music, how musicians and friends surrounding the music scene influenced you. What kind of crossover was there between the various art and music scenes you came up with?
Blasé is a remarkable album and Jeanne Lee is achingly good. I suppose my work is silent yes, but I always listen to music when I’m painting. I have tinnitus so I can’t bear the constant ringing, so I listen, usually to the same albums I’ve been listening to for twenty years: Eric’s Trip, Archie Shepp, David S. Ware, Obituary, ad nauseum. I was in school for two years, then I left. That was in 1993, and 1994. And I fucked around a bit more at a different alternative school a bit. A lot of the people I hung around with then became very successful musicians and artists. Andre Ethier was in the band Deadly Snakes as well, and became a really successful painter as well. I can’t overstate how much of an effect my friends Vasi and Yuri had on me. I also can’t overstate the drug aspect of my experiences then. There were a lot of drugs. Drugs and music, going to shows – it was really incredible for me as a non-musician to spend so much time with people who were truly gifted musicians. And very smart people. I was very lucky to come of age when I did – the timing was perfect. I lived in punk rock houses where bands coming through town would play all-ages shows in our basement: Fugazi, Hoover, Seam etc. I was very into the post-punk scene then as well. Jazz and hardcore. Ultimately dissonance was the most important thing in my development.
(Deadbeat Dad 2007/ On The Hastings Bus 2012: Courtesy of MFA Gallery Vancouver and Louis B. James Gallery New York)
Perhaps it is redundant to say your work is silent because all pictures, by their nature, are silent. I’m interested in the fact you say that dissonance was the ‘most important thing’ in your development, because although there is a fragmentary quality to your depictions, they are nevertheless figurative. Figuration is not something I normally think of as a style related to dissonance. What choices led you to a depictive practice instead of something else, something that would have more literally or obviously involved dissonance?
It’s very difficult to articulate. I have no talent for music or film. I’m only good with static imagery. Painting, and occasionally I can make a good photograph, but I’m too insecure to show my photographs. I think what I’m trying to do in my work is create some dissonance in a visual sense, which I know is confusing, but which is to say some lack of harmony or accord between what is on the canvas or paper, and what the viewer sees that image as representing. Because fundamentally my pictures are very conservative. But in that way I think they are also very radical, at least I hope so. I relate dissonance to confusion, and I try quite often to confuse people with my work.
One thing I’ve always liked about your work is its somewhat strained relationship to narrative. Your paintings work, to some extent, serially. They form stories — one being, in recent years, a kind of autobiography — although the details through which you narrate the story are obscure. Each picture focuses on a detail that hints toward a larger narrative, and yet it never really gives it to you. Perhaps that is what is “dissonant” about the pictures, because their execution, as you’ve said, is conservative. They are figurative depictions, in a way that is very un-hip in contemporary art right now, and that’s something I like about them. But I like the fact you stress that these depictions have a relationship to dissonance. I see it. But I wondered if you thought some of that dissonance has to do with the way the paintings relate to each other serially?
It does and it doesn’t. I’m listening right now to Alan Watts talk about vagueness, and it’s hard for me, or not hard but un-enjoyable for me, to give you pat answers about what the work is about, how it works etc. There is a seriality to the pictures, but I don’t see it as a seriality that operates within one specific show, rather it works over the course of the last ten or so years I have been showing my work. A picture from today has a relationship to a picture from 2001. I do, however, want the pictures in one show to be conversant with each other, but I would like it if that conversation was essentially inaudible, if this makes sense. I’m much more interested in the connections that YOU make between the pictures than in what I see as the connection between the pictures. That’s where the occult magic lies, in my opinion. Dissonance may not have been the best word, but it’s the most accurate term I can think of to describe what I see as an inherent disconnect. This disconnect is lovely, between my intention and your reaction.
(Dad’s Last Job 2012/ Erin Bending Over Backwards For Me 2011/Still Life With Hard Feelings 2006/ Don’t Worry It’s Just My Wife 2006/Balanced Conditions 2006/ Vintage Stationary wWth Message To Diane 2012: Courtesy of MFA Gallery Vancouver and Louis B. James Gallery New York)
To further this a little (perhaps somewhat un-intuitively): some of your paintings are text-paintings. What draws you to use found language as pictorial subject matter?
Again it all comes down to this feeling of being a failed writer. This is all difficult for me to articulate. My pictures are roman a clef, picaresque, bildungsroman, fictional autobiography. I can only think of my work in literary terms. Sean Landers and On Kawara I have empathy for. Lawrence Weiner not at all. But those pictures are basically just me making the title of the work, the work. It cuts straight through pictorialism and becomes very immediate. Some of the pictures you are talking about are covers of books, which is just me wanting to make my own book. But I’m an insecure writer so I paint the books I want to make. I’m not interested in “language art” or any of that bullshit, I’m interested in fonts and design. It’s all just basically me working out my desire to be a writer in painting. If that makes sense.
(Major Depressive Episode 2011/ Richard Prince 2008/One Month Of Reading In The Mirror 2006/ Hung Up On The Stairs 2007: Courtesy of MFA Gallery Vancouver and Louis B. James Gallery New York)
It does make sense. I’ve written about your work in relation to literature before. It’s interesting to me that you claim a main inspiration comes from music (dissonance) and some of your pictorial subject matter comes from a desire to be a writer, and yet the paintings you make are, in your own words, conservative.
Well what about those influences prohibit the work being conservative? I don’t understand. I read Infinite Jest a while ago, and it was big for me. I am not interested in happy resolutions, in writing or in art. So dissonance, unresolvedness, etc., are important to me. Like Sally Mann said, “If it’s not ambiguous don’t bother” – I relate to that. I think it is strange that my inspiration is never art but music and literature. I’m not a big art fan. I’m obsessed with Matisse, but my work has nothing to do with him, but he’s someone I aspire to paint like. I think my paintings are conservative simply by nature of their realism and masochistic technique. I don’t see anyone making pictures like mine, which is why I know I’m good.
(Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man 2011/ If I Had A Pseudonym 2007: Courtesy of MFA Gallery Vancouver and Louis B. James Gallery New York)
I had a feeling you were going to say that! What I meant is, your work is straight-up pictorial depiction and yet you don’t see your work in relation to (a) either the discourse of contemporary art or (b) even the history of painting. Your paintings have more to do with Saul Bellow or punk, and there’s something in that, a kind of mix-up that is not easily available to the viewer. I think it’s one of the more interesting aspects of your work: the way in which your paintings are as much about literature or music than they are about painting as such. I wholeheartedly agree about ambiguity. It reminds me of something Oscar Wilde wrote to James Abbott McNeill Whistler: “To be great is to be misunderstood; and remain, as I do, incomprehensible.”
What did you think I was going to say? That’s a wonderful quote by Wilde. Okay, well one, I have no fucking interest in the discourse of contemporary art. I don’t even like to use the word “discourse.” These “investigations” are what make Canadian art so provincial and boring. And secondly, historical painting really moves me and I think it’s a beautiful thing but referencing it has been done enough by now. Jeff Wall alone has done enough. I don’t see the need to keep referencing historical painting. I think it’s a crutch and operates as a sort of hook to hang weak work on. Yeah, that Wilde quote – I aspire to that. I like confusing people. The work appears so simple but it’s not at all, and at the same time I’m not trying to trick people or talk down to them. It’s a delicate balance, really. Punk rock was how I grew up, and Saul Bellow is a favorite writer. So it’s positive that you see that relationship. I like to write love letters to people like Wilde, Salinger, Sexton, Plath in my work. I’m a romantic. Women collect my work much more than men, and again, since women are so obviously superior to men, this is also evidence that I’m doing the right thing. It’s like people who describe their work as their “practice” – I’m not practicing anymore, I’m doing it.
Follow up words from Brad Phillips regarding his interview with Aaron Peck:
‘Since the time that has passed since this interview was done nine months ago, i’ve had certain realizations; please disregard all of my responses to the question’s that were put to me. I have nothing left to say about my work.’