Matt Phillips

Recent Boston University graduate Matt Phillips is currently being featured in an exhibition titled “Orderline,” which is organized by Petra Projects and hosted at the Mehr Gallery in New York City. The exhibition unites Phillips’ recent paintings with the textiles and drawings of Pratt Institute graduate Eliza Stamps. Phillips approaches painting through several simultaneous avenues, experimenting with painting as both object and illusion. The artist recently exhibited in the second-annual Boston Young Contemporaries (BYC), a student-run, juried exhibition that features more than 150 new works by MFA and POST-BAC candidates from 11 New England Schools. The artist is originally from Roanoke, Virginia, and received his degree in visual art and art history from Hampshire College, where he will begin teaching as a visiting professor this fall. Click the link below to read the interview with the artist.

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DS: Tell me about your current exhibition “Orderline” at Mehr Gallery (436 West 18th Street in Chelsea, NYC).

MP: It is a two-person show featuring my paintings and Eliza Stamps’ drawings and textile pieces. I am exhibiting seven paintings made in the past year. Two are concerned with a patterned space that I intentionally interrupt. The other five pieces are irregularly shaped canvases that resulted from a recent interest in altar paintings. They are all triptychs with a central panel that breaks the shape of the rectangle.

DS:The exhibition is curated by Anastasia Rogers, who runs Petra Projects. When did you two begin to work together, and how was she involved with this new exhibition?

MP: Petra Projects is sort of a “roaming venue,” with Anastasia organizing and presenting shows in different gallery spaces. Before this, Petra Projects was at a gallery in SOHO. Then Lital Mehr, who operates the Mehr Gallery, invited Anastasia to curate a show there in July. Anastasia approached me about being in “Orderline” after seeing my Boston University M.F.A. thesis show last April.

DS: So, “Orderline” is a two-person exhibition with artist Eliza Stamps. What kind of connections do you think Petra Projects wanted to make when she selected the two-person show?

MP: Even though our work is different, we have a lot of the same interests. We both use sewing and quilting, for example, and we both work with repeated small moves. Our work explores the territory where a piece can function as an illusion and as an object. I think her textile pieces approach the realm of sculpture. My paintings are definitely louder, but, together, our works create good visual dynamics.

DS: You have often referenced the idea of devotional painting within your work. “Painting (for Myra)” is an example of this. Can you tell me who Myra is and what she stands for within this painting?

MP: I often think of my own paintings as an offering or a gift to someone in my life or to somebody that inspires me. Myra was my grandmother. She died last year. She was an incredible lady — a dairy farmer from Georgia, the mother of 11 children and one of the first artists whom I encountered in my life. She was so resourceful. Myra would walk around her farm collecting trash, pieces of glass, a walnut, whatever. The next time you came by, it would be transformed into something new and fantastic. After she died, someone was going through her belongings and found that she had made a quilt for each one of her children. That was the impetus for my making that piece. I gathered up a bunch of old clothing, record covers, debris from the studio, whatever was available in my immediate surroundings, and started out to make a painting for Myra. It took about six months. There must be more than 3,000 individual pieces collaged into that painting. It was a really tedious process, and, at times, I definitely thought about abandoning it. But in the end, it felt really important to remain committed to my impulse to make it.

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DS: Over the summer you participated in the Boston Young Contemporaries (BYC), an annual survey exhibition of MFA candidates and recent graduates from New England held at Boston University. Can you tell me a little about the painting in that exhibition?

MP: That painting, “Squint Skyward and Listen,” was really fun to make. It started as a small sketch and ended up being this massive, 16-foot painting. The preliminary drawing evoked a really deep space, and I thought it would be appropriate to scale the painting to physically engage the viewer’s body — I wanted the painting to fill someone’s entire peripheral vision if they walked up to it. The bands of modulated color were an attempt to give the piece a visual rhythm and to depict a transition from shallow to infinite space. I wanted to evoke the visual experience of watching the sun’s light dissolve into darkness across the sky. I think that experience is so magical. I also used sewing for the constellations and the “antennae” of the central yellow form.

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DS: You’ve recently left Boston, and you’re currently living and working in Malibu, Calif., for the summer. Has the change in environment led to any new experimentation, and are you finding new inspiration from the area?

MP: It’s kind of a crazy situation. My girlfriend and I are living in her recently deceased grandmother’s empty house, which is surrounded by a cactus farm. Basically we’re here to help out before it’s sold. And in the meantime we get to go to the beach and see bobcats at close range and capture lizards in the living room. It’s hard to say how much the environment has influenced my work (mostly water-based paintings/collages on paper). I have been making some paintings that are spatially “deeper.” I can only assume it’s from staring at the horizon and watching waves break on the sea-shore. Also, I just heard that Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere is at the Getty. I want to go see that, Manet always inspires.

DS: You’ve said that your works often contain references to quilts, mosaics and architecture. How do you feel these elements relate to your work, and how are the ideas incorporated into your paintings?

MP: I like the utilitarian and commonplace qualities of quilts and mosaics. They live among us. We sleep under quilts, and lots of people have rubbed their hands across a mosaic. And I really like the way that a bunch of small parts can be arranged in such a way that they produce a greater whole. I am interested in the edges between painted forms. I think that a painting can be “charged” by how these forms interact with each other. Which parts get to meet? How do they touch? When does one piece cover another? The painting is the sum of these decisions. The viewer then gets to recreate the painter’s process through the act of looking. As for architecture, recently I have been thinking about architectural references in painting in a pretty broad sense. I think of these elements merely as any form that is reminiscent of something that one could physically encounter in “real life.” These visual symbols invite viewers to project themselves into the space of the painting. I guess it’s not unlike how I think about a figure in a painting – it allows us to relate our human experience to the painted world on the canvas.

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DS: Your interest in the idea of painting as object and as illusion is carried through much of your work. How do these two elements influence some of the more formal concerns such as scale, palette, composition and construction within your paintings?

MP: I tend to view a painting first as an object. I love the way paintings are a paradox — despite being a fixed object, one’s experience of the piece can change. Formally, I tend to be interested in high-keyed color. I have always been attracted to how colors optically vibrate — the color seems to exist in the space in front of the painting’s surface. The constructions or shaped canvases feel like a way to emphasize the “object-ness” of the paintings. For the most part, the shapes I use are similar to ones used in altar paintings. I want the form or shape of my painting and the image it presents to have a logical/co-dependant relationship. I think Italian Renaissance painters are great at using the shape or format of their supports as a means to develop the narratives or the abstract visual ideas contained in their paintings. Although, recently something happened that made me wonder if I get a little carried away with this whole idea. I was looking at this great Fra Angelico book with the frescoes isolated and set on white pages, and I was struck by one of his Crucifixion paintings. It is shaped like a giant nail. This gave the image a strong vertical thrust and a peculiar gravity — there was this incredible tension between the top and the bottom of the painting. I thought that maybe the shape had been dictated by the surrounding architecture but that Angelico’s genius had allowed him to use the shape to his advantage. I found out later that the shape was a result of some bad 17th-century re-modeling job. I’m sure that it pisses a lot of people off, but I still think it kind of works.

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DS: The idea of music and how it operates in relation to speed is one of your main interests. How do color, shape and surface affect the speed and motion of a painting, and are these elements incorporated intuitively within the works, or are they planned?

MP: The influence of music comes back to the idea of how a painting unfolds through time. Recently, I have been feeling like my paintings tend to operate at a pretty slow and rather uniform pace. I’ve been trying to push having different speeds within a single piece. I think this could add more visually extremities to my work and could be a good counter-point to the more subtle sides of my paintings. I think I can get seduced by systems of “growing” a painting. I really enjoy having patterns in my work, but it also feels important to be suspicious of the comfort that I find in repetition. My paintings could quickly turn into something like bad techno-music, and I could turn into a total control freak.

DS: You have cited seeing painting as a living language, one that is a compilation of innovations made by each successive generation of painters. Where does your work fit into this succession?

MP: One of the things that I love about visual art is that it rarely requires anyone’s energy after it is made. So while artists come and go through time, their work remains basically self-sufficient. I think that it is amazing to walk through a museum and see all of these different pieces from different times and places presented side by side. It feels like listening in on this huge conversation that stretches across time. Everybody is building upon each other’s discoveries. As far as where I fit into all this, I guess I just see myself trying to respond to ideas that resonate with me. Lately, I’ve been looking at the Gee’s Bend quilts and Indian miniature paintings.

DS: In the last months of graduate school you collaborated with some of your peers to create dozens of six-sided kites made of rice paper and printed with an image of an ear. How do both the collaborative and performative aspects of this project relate to other projects that you have completed?

DS: Josef Kristofoletti, Seth Gadsden and I editioned 30 wood-block prints that we made into kites. It was one of the few times that I have ever collaborated with other people and definitely something that I intend to do again — hopefully with those two. I enjoyed watching the prints change states — from a drawing, to a block of wood, to a print, to a kite and then they were all flying above us. We were standing in a field looking up at a bunch of flying drawings. One of my friends got his kite about a mile into the sky (he had to tie three spools together). It was amazing seeing that many kites flying at the same time.

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