New York

Richard Phillips

In his recent series of confidently worked oil paintings, Richard Phillips enlarges images of women found in ’70s fashion glossies to enormous scale, some more than six feet tall. While Phillips occasionally flirts with the issues of the “male gaze” and the sexual hard sell with these giant headshots, his treatment of them is more haunted than voyeuristic. In fact, the fashion archetypes of twentysome years ago—the cropped-top ingenue who might or might not be Twiggy, the stringy-haired flower child, the Charlie’s Angels wannabe in aviator shades—become strangely creepy in Phillips’ paintings: one immediately senses a dark undercurrent beneath these brightly lit façades.

In Facial Mask Peel, 1996, an impassive model tears off the translucent skin of her facial treatment, staring to the right as if hypnotized. Phillips makes the act seem the gesture of an extraterrestrial invader pulling off its alien skin, while also invoking a gruesome scene from Georges Franju’s horror film Eyes Without a Face, 1959, in which a mad plastic surgeon removes the face of a pretty girl to graft onto his disfigured daughter. Less extreme than the film’s makeover suggestion (but still disconcerting), the cold cream in Mask, 1995, turns its wearer into a doomed wraith, gazing beseechingly at the viewer from the depths of some fashion mag hell.

Despite the resemblance to Pop art and ’60s photorealism, Phillips’ work lacks the stylistic neutrality of the latter and the deadpan celebration of subject matter of the former. His use of media imagery takes a cue from Pop, but the datedness of the pictures he chooses foils Pop’s seamless connections between life and art. Though products of media culture, the images are transformed by paint handling that both intensifies and undermines its subjects: mascaraed eyelashes become crawling tarantulas, and kitschy photographic effects (such as the purple negative background of Transfixed, 1996) translate into unexpected passages of bravura abstraction. In this way, Phillips uses paint to infuse the media images that define beauty with both dread and desire.

Tom Moody