Facing the Facts while Embracing Fiction: an Interview with Brad Phillips
Apr 18, 2019
My first encounter with artist Brad Phillips’ work was only about a month ago. After happening upon his show at Harper’s Apartment on E 74th St in Manhattan (up through April 24), my interest was sufficiently piqued. I proceeded to post his artwork on my Instagram and tag him, not thinking anything in particular would come of it. However, we then began corresponding via direct message on Instagram, the 2019 version of networking! I remember being surprised at the time at how open and responsive Phillips was with me, a random stranger from the Internet.
However, after reading Phillips’ book “Essay & Fictions” (2019) (in under a week, might I add), I am much less surprised by his friendly response to my post and our successive correspondence than I was initially. The artist is nothing if not accessible, cleverly observant and genuine, and it comes through in everything he does-- even in his online social media presence. Although his writing and artworks often deal with heavier subjects like addiction, mental illness and some of the darker, less frequently discussed aspects of human sexuality, he addresses them in a way that is real and open; neither irreverent, nor depressing. He has a very refreshing, matter-of-fact way about him that says “this is me- like it if you want, but I won’t care if you don’t either.” And whether or not you can relate to the topics of his works on a personal level, Phillips expertly draws you in, making you feel connected to him and the things he’s experienced.
The other “fun” part of Phillips’ book is that the title “Essays and Fictions” implies that some of his writing is true (essay), and some of it is not (fiction). To me, it came across as a kind of contemporary magical realism: readers are left to sift through the book and decide for themselves which of the experiences Phillips describes actually happened, which are based in fact but embellished upon, and which probably never happened at all.
Phillips’ show, What You Do When You Don’t Go Outside, at Harper’s Apartment follows a similar “fact vs. fiction” theme, with artworks like Sex Part of Exhibition From a Photo Taken of Me and Cristine (2019), depicting him and his wife mid-sex act. The painting is quite obviously based off of the artist’s real life, but if there were any doubt, Phillips helpfully underscores its meaning with his informative title. Fiction comes into play equally in other works, as in Horror Part of the Exhibition (2019), consisting of a shadowy masked figure holding a large knife, standing at the top of a staircase staring down at the viewer menacingly-- a stock scene from many American horror movies. The artist seamlessly combines his two skill sets of writing and painting in The Greatest Art is to Endure (2019), a painting of a note tacked to a wall with the same poetic, hopeful inscription as the work’s title.
Phillips was kind enough to answer a few questions for me for Eazel Magazine in conjunction with our virtual tour of his exhibition at Harper’s Apartment:
Nina Blumberg (NB): When you were young, did you want to be an artist? If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
Brad Phillips (BP): I've wanted to and have been an artist for as long as I can remember. Maybe I remember drawing obsessively around three years old? My oldest memories are of art, and I was lucky to be around good art. My grandfather was a very good abstract painter. If I weren't an artist, I'd probably have ended up playing at least Italian league basketball. If I had a choice now I'd just focus more on Remote Viewing and try to end up doing that for a living. (NB: [*Note: Remote viewing (RV) is the practice of seeking impressions about a distant or unseen target, purportedly using extrasensory perception (ESP) or "sensing" with the mind.])
NB: What is your favorite painting you’ve ever made? Favorite essay ever written?
BP: I like this painting I made of an upside down John Cheever painting ten plus years ago, and I like an essay I wrote recently about Nina Simone, probably because it's the most recent. Whatever I made most recently is usually my favorite thing.
NB: You published your book, “Essays and Fictions,” in 2018. Does it relate at all to your current show of paintings at Harper’s Apartment?
BP: No, there's no relationship other than maybe a connection to references in my book and paintings in the show that are indicative of my love of American media clichés.
NB: You’re Canadian, but you make a lot of American pop culture references in your art- why is that?
BP: It's not necessarily true that I'm Canadian, but if I was, it's probably because people in southwestern Ontario where Toronto is, and essentially all Canadians, grow up exposed almost solely to American movies and television. Canadians are de facto Americans with free healthcare. (NB: [** Note: Brad is definitely Canadian.])
NB: Your work is often also overtly sexual. Do you ever worry about offending your audience?
BP: In my artwork, it's an extremely small fraction of my output. In writing more so I guess. I don't worry about offending anyone, as long as my wife Cristine doesn't look sideways at something I make or write, then I trust her and she's the only real audience I think of other than myself. It's a huge error to think about the audience anyway, fundamentally. I'm not looking to offend anyone, but people will be offended whether I intend it or not, and that doesn't necessarily just refer to making work about sex. Sex is as much a part of my life as watering the flowers or buying food. I don't see a reason to not represent that as well if I'm a putative 'realist.'
NB: How do you deal with criticism of your work?
BP: I really don't care at all, I've only had one bad review in twenty years.
NB: That’s a pretty good track record! Do you think your artistic style has evolved at all with age?
BP: If it hasn't, I’m doing something wrong.
NB: Best show (besides your own) you saw in 2018?
BP: I don't go look at art shows because there's very little I want to see that's new. It's honestly not bias, but my wife Cristine Brache's show at Locust Projects in Miami in February was the best thing I've seen in a very long time.
NB: So if you don’t really like anything that’s new, do you appreciate art from art history more then? Artists who came before you?
BP: No, I mean I like new art when I encounter it sometimes, but I meant more that I don't seek it out. If I want to look at art, I only want to look at older work that I've already been looking hard at for a long time. Corny maybe, but Vuillard, Bonnard, Matisse, and Les Nabis paintings, early 20th century American poster design, Neue Sachlichkeit, Otto Mueller, Sonia Delaunay, Fritz Bleyl, Karl Hubbuch, Mike Kelley, Sean Landers, John Currin, Paul McCarthy, Domenico, Gnolie, Helmut Newton, Taisho Japanese prints-- I mean a vast tract of visual material. I feel like there's so much for me to look at there that I don't have time to keep up with trying to see what's new, especially because I'll typically only see contemporary art in reproduction because of where I live. Someone gave me good advice eleven years ago - stop looking at art magazines and art websites. It helped me feel better about myself, but it also keeps me at a remove. I also really admire the paintings of Tala Madani very much and wished I'd been able to see her show in New York in the fall. The Bruce Nauman show that I did see broke my mind, which wasn't surprising.
NB: How has technology (social media, Instagram, etc.) influenced your artmaking and writing?
BP: It's affected how much I get asked these sort of questions, and reminds me how much I don't like being a quasi-expert on Instagram, when I'm just a normal idiot. I met my wife, have sold work, made good friends and other weird stuff via the internet, so that part's nice.
NB: So what is the best advice someone ever gave you?
BP: Definitely what I just mentioned- it was a psychiatrist I had in 2008 who told me to stop buying art magazines and looking at art websites, and I haven't done it once since. That was great advice. I also had someone teach me how to beat a lie detector test, which is surprisingly easy and always good to know.
NB: If you have coffee with any one person in the world (alive or dead), who would it be and why?
BP: My dad, dead.
Brad Phillips, What You Do When You Don’t Go Outside, is on view at Harper’s Apartment, 51 E 74th St, 2X, through April 24.