In the Studio With Richard Phillips
Art

In the Studio with Richard Phillips

An iconic artist fascinated by models, starlets, and musicians, invites us to his studio for a deep dive into his creative process.
Reading time 5 minutes

For artist Richard Phillips, drawing has always been his first language. “Drawing has always been the basis for articulating my thoughts—be they visual or conceptual plans intended for irrational expression,” he says. “With drawing, there is a potential for gathering information for future works as well as creating an immediate end point in itself.” Phillips, who is arguably most recognized for his large-scale paintings of women, is infatuated by the idea of “fame” and “celebrity,” which makes sense given that these two themes are ever-present in his bodies of work. From Rihanna in mid-thought to a bleach blonde Lindsay Lohan with a surfboard under her arm, Phillips finds the perfect moment from the perfect image and then begins his process. Here, Phillips tells us how his career as an artist started on a construction site.

It can be argued that you got into art by way of construction.

 

When I first moved to New York, I had to support myself and pay the bills by doing carpentry and painting. I happened to find work with a contractor who worked for Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and Richard Gere. It was a surreal immersion into another world that I didn’t know about at the time and one that would ultimately have an influence on me later on.

 

You’ve been vocal by saying that “fashion is not separate from art.” Why is this especially true in what you do?

 

Fashion is an inescapable part of our lives and we come to it in as many different ways. For a long time, art was seen as culturally and hierarchically separate from fashion, in the sense that it maintained a dominant position that subordinated fashion to a lesser concern. This of course has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. Now, the fashion industry is an important underwriter and guarantor of artistic production on a global scale.

Masha, 2017, oil on linen

Your subject matter often features close-up portraits of women. Why is this a theme that has come to define your work?

 

It’s true that my recent paintings have refocused their attention on close-up portraits of models— but in a wholly different way than when I started out back in the mid-’90s. Social media and the projection of the self on screens by models as a way of sustaining relevance or advertising products and lifestyle experiences creates endless possibilities for reading and misreading the individual. My new “Monochrome Model” paintings seek to draw out and amplify the psychological and emotional weight of what lies behind the facade of identity and its authors.

 

As an artist who often portrays people, what is the most memorable reaction you’ve received from one of your subjects?

 

In 2012, I had an exhibition at Gagosian in Chelsea. There were very large scale paintings of Lindsay Lohan, Adriana Lima, and Sasha Grey. Sasha came to the opening and stood before the nearly 14-foot-wide image of her face painted in oil. It was exciting to see the look of astonishment on her face as this was not a projected image; it was a painting that had started out as a blank canvas. To me, it underscored the way painting differs from cinema and photography.

Grace, 2017, oil on linen

Color is imbedded throughout your work. What’s your approach to color in the creative process?

 

Color has always been important to my paintings for how it shapes meaning in its abundance or its severe restriction. At present, I am restricting color in order to direct the imagery towards a more isolated context that is less influenced by time of day or night or even qualities of light that emit from the subject. This restriction opens up other sensitivities of perception that would be distracted by a bright, multicolored palette. You often focus on subjects that our mainstream culture is obsessed with.

 

Are there certain characteristics that you look for in people in order to paint them?

 

I recently painted a portrait of an image I found of Rihanna walking a red carpet. The painting was only 14 by 12 inches, making it one of the smallest painting I’ve completed. This painting was also in monochrome and captured an “in-between” moment in the strobing light of the press lineup. The scale of the painting is intimate as is the portrayal of Rihanna lost in thought while posing for the media. It was precisely this uncharacteristic moment of unguarded self-possession that attracted me to it and gave me the sense of its possibility as a beginning of a painting.

 

How has celebrity changed in your eyes from when you started until today?

 

It’s changed a lot. The best way I can articulate this is to recommend visiting @shesvague on Instagram. You’ll know exactly what I mean...

 

Go in the studio with Richard Phillips below, shot and edited by Matin Zad

In the Studio with Richard Phillips

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