Toronto native Brad Phillips began painting in the early 1990s while living in punk rock houses and partying with local musicians during his brief stint at art school. Unreserved in his but carefully rendered imagery, his work visually explores ideas about psychology, drugs, literature, sex and culture through an ongoing personal narrative. New work made during the last year has been the subject of recent solo shows at Louis B. James Gallery, New York, and Macaulay Fine Arts, Vancouver.
Brad Phillips’ recent work for his solo show at Louis B. James Gallery in New York City this past winter, “Sex, Sex, and Death,” brings to mind Larry Clark in the 1970s, Wolfgang Tillman’s lurid documentation from 1980s Berlin or Ed Templeton’s frenetic mixed media from the early 2000s - Phillips champions the mundane, overwrought dramas of an unanchored early adulthood. From allusions to illicit and dangerous sex in “Not Pregnant” and “First Attempt at Legal Document” to the pessimistic morbidity in “Reading Schopenhauer on the Train Heidi Jumped Under - 1988,” and “Toothache, No Money, Girlfriend in Nova Scotia, 18 Months Clean,” Phillips illustrates the precarious balance between small spontaneous joys amid a larger overarching hopelessness of dread and despair.
The paintings’ emphasis on negative is tempered here by what appears to be a simple romance. The girl is profoundly named Sojourner. And you can feel the blood pumping through her watercolor-rendered body as she looks sleepily out from behind her manicured hand in “Sojourner Truth Parsons,” or stands defiantly in a state of semi-undress on her windowsill in “Sojourner's Window Dressing.” Phillips reminds us how the darkest state of abjection can be so thoroughly overturned by the faint glimmer of admiration for another person.
The suggested romance between the artist and this woman is difficult to pick out at first, overshadowed by the numerous vignettes of bitter cynicism and self-loathing. Reminiscent of adolescence, like building up the courage to kiss somebody who doesn’t expect it, there’s a rare excitement to her cameos. “Thirty Third Date” begs the question as to whether Sojourner really held out so long before assuming that unmistakable position in the painting.
Then again, maybe that’s not her kneeling there at all. Maybe he’s fooling around. Or maybe he’s asking us to look at the gaps and spaces between love and joy, and how altogether they build up to a richer whole. The blips between the big things are fodder for art too, the filth and mania and pettiness. They’re the grit that makes the good glorious.