New York

Phil Frost

Phil Frost is part of a clique (“school” seems too formal) of street artists/skateboarders who’ve filtered into galleries in recent years—the most prominent being Barry McGee, with whom Frost has had a long association. What’s most immediately striking about the artist’s work is how his graffiti-inspired street sensibility is simultaneously amplified and simplified, creating a frenetic yet almost sheerly decorative effect. Frost’s trademark, like McGee’s liquor bottles, is a white frosting (forgive the pun) of elaborate signs and symbols—dots, arrows, spades, hearts, birdlike figures, and the like—rendered with a Wite-Out pen. It’s the final layer in mixed-media works built up from spattered and streaked paint that is encrusted, collagelike, with found objects: flattened motor-oil cans, paper dress patterns, comics, sheet music. Frequently, too, the works are populated by stiff, sickly, dead-eyed humanoids resembling something along the lines of Frankenstein as drawn by Dr. Seuss.

Frost lays down the Wite-Out in dense patterns in which individual letters and nonsensical words may occasionally be picked out; overall, this amalgam of letters, numbers, and symbols is fused into his own personal hieroglyphics. In purely practical terms, the technique must be laborious, especially with the more monumental works in this show, like the 9-by-19-foot Soe Slaughter Surrender, or the 151/2-by-7-foot Rider of the Storm (all works 1999). Which is to say that comparisons with a certain other street-cum-gallery artist of the previous decade, Jean-Michel Basquiat, don’t really hold up: Where Basquiat was flamboyantly expressive, Frost’s work seems more premeditated, even designed. On the other hand, Frost displays a compulsive effusiveness common to many autodidacts (are there any self-taught minimalist artists?); the white layer, like carefully applied glue, is what holds the piece together.

As with McGee, it’d be easy to laud Frost for his “authenticity”: his skill in not only making the streets into his studio but also channeling the energy and misfortunes of contemporary urban life into gallery works. The danger in that, with authenticity such a hot commodity lately, would be to glamorize his project as so much hipster street stuff—summoning a portrait of the artist as a young member of one of those “style tribes” slinking around the New York subways in the widely reviled Levi’s ads. Luckily, however, Frost is saved from slickness by his obvious, unabashed affection for the old, the obsolete, the outmoded, and the simply odd. (Indeed, the cartoonish living-dead figures in his art could even be a mutant strain of the Levi’s cosmopolites.)

One imagines Frost’s art emerging from a pack rat’s studio piled high with rotting treasures from vacant lots and abandoned buildings: rusting lockers and cubbyhole cabinets (the latter, filled with old-fashioned curvy Coke bottles, is a key component of E.O. Manna); comics featuring heroes and villains and lots of busty chicks; worn wooden baseball bats; railroad ties. Nostalgia seems to seep from these works—as does an achingly devotional strain of sentimentality. The painting in the installation Soe Slaughter Surrender, with its shower of Wite-Out hearts, has an air of lovesickness; beneath it lies a pile of unstitched baseballs, like hearts emptied out in offering.

Freighting this scrappy tenderness with an old-fashioned fin-de-siècle malaise are the aforementioned figures on Frost’s urban battlefield, who emerge from the paint but remain behind a screen of Wite-Out. Uniformly jaded, exhausted, disaffected, emaciated, alienated, etc., it’s as if they’d like to dream of something better but just can’t summon the energy. The chaos around them has sapped it out of them.

Julie Caniglia