New York

Richard Phillips

Richard Phillips made his reputation in the mid-’90s with huge, immaculately painted “head shots” of beautiful babes and anonymous model types who are never more than vaguely familiar but whom we instantly associate with the mass media. The artist is drawn to the “throwaway” culture of that world—short-lived fads, too-cool fashions, long-forgotten ad campaigns—as well as to the “throwaway” decade, as the ’70s were once known. Phillips’s recent show continued along these lines. Two new paintings flash back to the “natural” look of the old days: In Riot (all works 1998), four beautiful young faces graphically rendered in black and white are perfect mannequins for different shades of pastel eye shadow, while in Three Women the dark-skinned beauties could have been borrowed from a period ad for anything from cars to beer. But what’s noticeably absent is any product—there is no identifiable thing being sold, no logo, no display copy—and it seems that what’s really on display is some kind of emptiness. Like all the faces that peer at us from magazines, billboards, and TV, those in Phillips’s paintings don’t function in any intimate way; they look perfect and also perfectly vacant. But the artist’s fascination extends beyond the blankness of the models themselves to the imposing monumentality of the image world to which they belong. His head-shot paintings range upward of eight to nine feet, bringing us face-to-face with our media-induced fantasies, our cultural obsession with perfection, our fanatical pursuit of youth.

While Phillips has never moralized in his work, several new paintings could be seen as modem images of vanitas. In Portrait of God (after Richard Bernstein), Phillips reproduces an illustrated Interview cover of Rob Lowe, the azure-eyed ’80s pretty boy who fell from grace after a highly publicized sex scandal. Jacko (after Jeff Koons) reproduces the cover image of Jeff Koons’s retrospective catalogue, the artist’s signature sculpture of Michael Jackson. In contrast to the perfect bodies in other works, the image of Jackson here—as clown, as clone, as just plain weird—seems to function as something of a cautionary tale.

Even though we might know the names of his subjects, Phillips’s paintings (unlike, say, Alex Katz’s) are never about actual people or lived experience but about appearances—everybody looks good at the same time that nobody looks real. Actually, all his portraits look exactly like what they are: reproductions of reproductions from magazine covers, ads, etc., and this self-conscious relation to mass media is the only thing that feels outright intimate and “real” about the works. But rather than lament or condemn that displacement, Phillips’s paintings are happy to investigate the culture of the copy. As images, Phillips’s models belong to that imposing continuum that stretches throughout our lives, beckoning to us from every imaginable surface, from movie screens and billboards to newspapers and magazines, from popcorn bags and calling cards to buses and tall buildings. His art makes visible the never-ending chain of reproduction that feeds us the stuff we couldn’t—and wouldn’t want to—live without.

Jan Avgikos