John Phillips

Tony Wight Gallery

The coupling of clear form with an at times confused figure-ground relationship is a hallmark of John Phillips’s oils. In this recent exhibition of nine new works, the artist’s newly introduced battle was between cranked-up color and striations of gray, with the latter poised to triumph at every turn. Phillips’s precise positioning of circles, ovals, and stripes suggests the use of a computer to sketch out pattern and color prior to painting. Still, the edges of forms, while clean and purposely plotted, are hardly perfect, their wavering lines exposing a comfort with the unaided hand’s limitations.

The best works in the show have a vibrant visuality. They are crafted with thick paint that keeps the eye moving from oval to ground to oval, seeking respite in canvases never quite large enough to allow for it. The color is artificial and opaque, parsed out in hand-plotted compositions that discard the claustrophobia of Op art. The buzz is there, but not the paranoia. In the best moments—the syncopated pinks of Fats Domingo, 2007, the tight rhythmic bars of Hey Joe (Albers), 2007, or the powder-blue ground and floating gray martini olives of Untitled, 2008—the hand serves to moderate slickness with crooked geometry.

Despite their visual pop, the attitude of these paintings is wry and dry, reflecting a long-rehearsed deadpan stance crucial to this particular stand-up routine’s success. One might characterize the works as formalist Borscht-Belt abstractions. This is most readily seen in Untitled (Puppy), 2006, a large painting in which the elegant ovals coalesce into a cartoonish dog face. But despite the self-deprecating humor that lurks in the orbit of the shapes, these paintings have serious origins, combining the languages of various geometric painting styles with specific reverence to John McLaughlin canvases and early Ellsworth Kelly collages. Occasionally, hints of midcentury interior decor or an ornamental motif are also detectable, recalling the interplay between abstraction and decoration rife in early modernism.

Using an artist’s personal obsessions as a point of entry into their work can be a disastrous critical strategy, but Phillips’s dedication to music, particularly jump blues, garage rock, and early punk, are regularly alluded to in his work’s titles—My Daddy Drives a UFO, 2008, for example, borrows a lyric from the 1970s punk band the Cramps. These music styles share an affinity for quick tempos, earthy lyrics, and simple riffs executed with abandon. They are all rough-hewn and histrionic, pared-down and fast-paced. One couldn’t ask for a better summary of Phillips’s practice.

Anthony Elms